I wanted to make our family recipe for Rumanian eggplant salad as an appetizer before Mother’s Day dinner at my aunt Tillie’s home in Pembroke Pines FL. So I headed to the local Whole Foods, convinced that would be a likely place to find tomatoes that were not grown in Florida.
It wasn’t all that easy. The choices came down mostly to Florida-grown or Florida hot house heirlooms. A further search, however, turned up a bin with California tomatoes.
It’s not because I’m a California snob who won’t buy anything produced elsewhere. It’s a matter of knowing too much about Florida tomatoes.
For instance: would you buy a tomato if you knew it might have been picked by a slave, not a slave in some foreign dictatorship, but a slave right here in the U.S.?
Would you buy a Florida tomato if you knew it had been hit with eight times more pesticide than the one grown somewhere else?
Would you buy a tomato from a grower who said, “I get paid for the pound, not for the flavor.”?
Welcome to the world of Florida tomatoes. The problem is the climate in Florida. It’s about as inhospitable for growing tomatoes as Iceland would be for growing pineapples.
I didn’t know any of this until I came across Barry Eastbrook’s book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
For years it has been difficult, if not impossible, to find decent tasting tomatoes in super markets, even at the height of the summer season. Much has been written about how commercial agricultural interests engineer the taste out of produce in the quest for increased crop yields and lengthened growing seasons and shelf life. Tomatoes are among the chief victims of this practice.
Eastbrook supports the notion, when he writes: “For the last 50 years, tomato breeders have concentrated essentially on one thing and that is yield – they want plants that yield as many or as much as possible. They also want those fruits to be able to stand up to being harvested, packed, artificially ripened with ethylene gas and then shipped away and still be holding together in the supermarket a week or 10 days later.”
The evolution away from taste has been going on so long that many of today’s younger shoppers probably have no awareness of the deep flavor tomatoes once packed. So, they continue to get by with what’s available in the market and think that’s acceptable.
All that is a sorry state of affairs in and of itself. But when the subject turns to Florida tomatoes, the issue becomes compounded.
The swampy humidity of Florida creates a breeding lab for all manner of pests. That the tomato farms are located mostly in the Everglades exacerbates the situation. So Florida farmers douse their tomato crops in eight times the amount of pesticides farmers use in other places.
“The official Florida handbook for tomato growers lists 110 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides that can be applied to a tomato field over the course of the growing season,” Eastbrook writes.
Astounding as it may seem, in the last 15 years there have been seven cases prosecuted for actual slavery in the Florida tomato fields. Seven growers were convicted and 1,200 slaves set free.
How can that happen? What kind of culture must exist to allow someone to even think they could get away with it? What kind of conspiracy of silence must there be for them to get away with it for the several years before getting caught.
So, with the burden of this knowledge, I selected two nice sized California organic tomatoes, picked up a beautiful eggplant and an organic onion and turned out a very good pre-dinner salad. Here’s the recipe:
RUMANIAN EGGPLANT SALAD
1 Eggplant, about 1 lb
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
2 medium tomatoes, cut into small pieces
1 Tblsp olive oil (or to taste)
2 tsp lemon juice (or to taste)
12 Greek style black olives, pitted and chopped
salt to taste
Pierce skin of eggplant in several places with the point of a knife to prevent eggplant from exploding. Bake eggplant at 400 degrees for 40 minutes in a shallow baking dish. Let the eggplant cool. Peel off the skin. Chop the eggplant with the edge of a spoon. Put chopped eggplant in a fine strainer and let juice drain out. Place eggplant in a bowl. Mix onion and tomatoes into chopped eggplant. Stir in olive oil and lemon juice to taste. Stir in olives. Add salt to taste if necessary. Cover and refrigerate until about 30 minutes before you are ready to serve. Uncover and let stand. Serve at room temperature. Mix before serving. Taste again at room temperature and add salt if needed.
Remember, the olives can be very salty. So use care in adding salt. If you omit the olives you will need to use more salt.
Serve as a dip with plain water crackers or sesame crackers.