Canned Tomatoes Are Looking Better & Better

Hat tip to commentor dj spellchecka for the link to NPR’s interview transcript on “The Troubled History of the Supermarket Tomato“:

GUY RAZ: I’m speaking with Barry Estabrook. His new book is called “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.” Barry, a big part of this book is not just about the taste of tomatoes but about the process of getting them to market. And you describe this world, and I’m using your words, you describe a world where slave labor is employed.
BARRY ESTABROOK: Let me run down a few little items here: people being bought and sold like animals, people being shackled in chains, people being beaten for either not working hard enough, fast enough or being too weak or sick to work, people actually being shot and killed for trying to escape. That sounds like 1850’s slavery to me. And that, in fact, is going on or has gone on. They were – in the last 15 years, there have been seven successful prosecutions, slavery prosecutions in the State of Florida. Even, you know, the ones that are not being held as slaves probably work at the very, very bottom of the American workforce… They’re paid basically per pound that they pick. If it rains, they don’t make a cent that day.[…]
RAZ: A few years ago, some of these farm workers in Florida started to organize, actually. And there was a campaign backed by some labor unions and student groups and their conditions apparently improved. What happened?
ESTABROOK: In the last seven or eight months, there’s just been a sea change in labor relations in the Florida tomato industry. What had happened was this small group of grassroots people called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers had been lobbying since the early ’90s to get a raise and to have some basic primitive workers’ rights put in place.
What they started concentrating on was the end customers of these farmers. They started with – actually with the Taco Bell restaurant chain. And after four years, Taco Bell said, okay, we’ve had enough. I mean, four years of boycotts, demonstrations, they signed a board. And then gradually, all the other fast food chains in the country, one by one, often kicking and screaming, signed onto this agreement. The sad thing is that not a single supermarket chain in the country, with the exception of Whole Foods, has agreed.
RAZ: So even if somebody really wanted to eat tomatoes in the winter, could they? I mean, somebody listening to this now saying: All right. You know, I want to do this right. I don’t want to, you know, I don’t want to eat a bad tomato. I don’t want to support this system of industrialized tomatoes. I just want have – but I do want to have a fresh tomato in December, January. What would you say?
ESTABROOK: I would very reluctantly say get a hydroponic tomato and hope that there’s some taste in it.
RAZ: But really you’re saying that they shouldn’t eat tomatoes after September.
ESTABROOK: I think tomatoes in grocery stores are like food porn in the purest sense of the word. They look nice, they tantalize you, they make you think, but they don’t deliver. You’re not getting the same thing by any measure that you get in the summer either from your own garden or from a farmers market or even in a supermarket that does carry local tomatoes.

Additional quote from the book, via an Amazon reviewer:

“Today’s industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s. But the modern tomato does shame its 1960s counterpart in one area: It comtains fourteen times as much sodium.”

As an unabashed Taco Bell customer, I’m not in a good position to criticize other peoples’ food choices. But if I’m gonna pollute the temple of my body, I want my poison to at least please my tastebuds, degraded as they are. I’m lucky to be in a situation where I can grow my own tomatoes — and believe me, if it took actual gardening skillz, that wouldn’t be happening — so I’ve got salads from mid-July until mid-November, plus enough extra to slow-roast & freeze in baggies. For the rest of the year, the canned tomatoes at my local chain supermarket are a lot tastier than the ‘fresh’ plant-based red ovoids in the produce aisle. Now, if I could just find out where the V-8 tomatoes are sourced…

51 replies
  1. 1
    Yutsano says:

    My local store (usually) carries locally grown heirloom tomatoes. Best suckers I’ve ever popped into my mouth. And now I can tell the difference vs mass-market maters. Unfortunately they were out when I was there today. So I settled for goldens and will hope for the best.

  2. 2
    Martin says:

    As an unabashed Taco Bell customer

    I didn’t think anything mentioned on this blog could shock me. I’m going to have to reëvaluate some stuff now.

  3. 3
    Lysana says:

    And what, may I ask, is WRONG with having to eat more seasonally again? We are a spoiled country.

  4. 4
    The Raven says:

    There’s a longer interview with Estabrook at:

  5. 5
    RalfW says:

    There is a chain grocer in my community where the Bushel Boy tomatoes (MN grown) go that don’t look perfect.

    And they taste much better than the perfect ones at the nice stores in the chain, out in the suburbs. Hah!

    Really, these tomatoes are convoluted and funny looking – basically, every now and then a hybridized tomato plant just wants to make a funny looking, tasty heirloom-ish tom.

    And they go to the dumpiest store in the chain, and the working class people and immigrants in my Minneapolis neighborhood get good tasting, ugly tomatoes.

    Fun with food snobism.

  6. 6
    J.W. Hamner says:

    I guess the question is whether a boycott is really the best thing for the workers noted. Certainly from a taste standpoint the issue is moot.

  7. 7
    gilintx says:

    Have you ever tried canning your own? Tomatoes actually put up very well, assuming you know what you’re doing. I put up about 20 lbs. of farm fresh tomatoes last summer, and they’re still in good shape. Sure, it took about six hours to do, but it was worth good-tasting (and slavery-free) fruit for the rest of the year.

  8. 8
    Jewish Steel says:

    As an unabashed Taco Bell customer

    Yeah, that’s a big “Wow, weird!” from us too.

  9. 9
    Yutsano says:

    @Martin: @Jewish Steel: To quote one of the greatest comic characters ever:

    “Let he who is without sin cast the first slice of quiche.”

  10. 10
    Jewish Steel says:

    @Yutsano: Jesus?

  11. 11
    hilts says:


    Newsweek gives Palin another cover story

    Chris Matthews and Rich Lowery now have a new photo they can use to pleasure themselves.

  12. 12
    Yutsano says:

    @Jewish Steel: These guys. It’s gay humor but it’s downright fucking hilarious. Leonard is the guy with the black mustache. The pithy comment up above is his.

  13. 13
    jl says:

    @11: hilts

    Huh… another Palin national cover story. Newsweek’s kinda in trouble, right? Didn’t it just recently merge with something to stay afloat? I guess they figure teabagger sales will at least be reliable, if not big money, at least steady.

    Now, if the title had said ‘how she will decide to decide whether to run’ I might read it. But how Palin will just decide whether to run, that sounds boring.

  14. 14
    Spaghetti Lee says:

    Chris Matthews and Rich Lowery now have a new photo they can use to pleasure themselves.

    And how. Jeebus, Sarah, thrust that chest out a little more why dontcha?

  15. 15
    jl says:

    Anyway, yeah. Eat seasonal, or canned. What is wrong with that?

    What’s wrong with it I guess is that these dang kids today don’t wanna eat their broccoli, and rutabagas, and beets, and brussels sprouts, and parsnips, and turnips and fennel. Is what it is.

    Or cook them, or know how to cook them, or even know they are.

    Which is sad, in a way.

    As as ancient relative of mine, long departed, used to say: “Them damn city people don’t know not one damn thing, that’s all there is too it.”

    Which was harsh, too harsh, and mean.

    Brussels sprouts, done right, will beat an out of season tomato around the block and back again any day of the week. If only people knew.

    Edit: forgot sweet potatoes, they are deep fall, and great, without syrup and marshmallows (not that there is anything wrong with that once in awhile). I am forgetting some other wonderful fall things…

  16. 16
    Hazel Stone says:

    Beware of canned tomatoes that are not BPA free.

  17. 17
    jl says:

    A lot of citrus is early fall through winter. And a lot of citrus in the store is worthless. Especially oranges. Not sure why things like kumquats mandarins and tangerines and all the hybrid mixes can survive getting to the store in somewhat recognizable shape, but organges from the tree are way better than what I get in the store. Grapefruit in between.

    Eat that stuff in fall and winter, not tennis ball tomatoes.

  18. 18

    Makes me feel better about my totally irrational hatred of tomatoes.

  19. 19
    Jewish Steel says:

    @Yutsano: I esp like the cover for Domesticity Isn’t Pretty

  20. 20
    jl says:

    Damn kids don’t even want to read about their vegetables these days. Bah humbug!

    That nice Mr. Krugman seems a might crabby these days. Probably because them damn city people won’t buy any of that good NJ (Garden State) produce anymore.

    Or is he mad at other eggheads. Looks like he is pioneering a new genre of literature, the column à clef (pronounced ‘cah-LOOOM awh kle’ I would suppose, if forced to).

    Guess who this is:

    “Turn on your TV and you’ll see some self-satisfied pundit declaring that nothing much can be done about the economy’s short-run problems (reminder: this “short run” is now in its fourth year), that we should focus on the long run instead.”

    And the militant Obots will gnash their teeth and rend their garments about who the Krug might be talking about here (Oh, why do the heathens, the worshipers of false gods rage?):

    ” Excuse No. 1: Just around the corner, there’s a rainbow in the sky. ”

    First one who identifies everyone gets a prize!

    No, We Can’t? Or Won’t?By PAUL KRUGMAN
    Published: July 10, 2011

  21. 21
    Yutsano says:

    @Jewish Steel: Here’s the best thing about Leonard and Larry: they’re BORING. The wildest thing they do with each other is go out to the occasional bar. That’s it. Otherwise they’re portrayed as just about a normal couple that has two dicks can be. And you should see the creator. Holy shit. He looks like a Hell’s Angel’s worst nightmare.

  22. 22
    Martin says:

    Yeah, that’s a big “Wow, weird!” from us too.

    I think my problem is that living in CA has given me a decent appreciation of the hierarchy of mexican food, and even among the drive-through chains, Taco Bell is at the bottom. Roach coaches, little illegal places in the back of markets, the nice ladies that sell stuff out the backs of their cars at the strip mall – all measurably better, even at their worst.

  23. 23
    Yutsano says:

    Roach coaches, little illegal places in the back of markets, the nice ladies that sell stuff out the backs of their cars at the strip mall – all measurably better, even at their worst.

    And I bet every single one of them has A cards. CA don’t fuck around with food safety.

  24. 24
    different church-lady says:

    I dunno about the rest of you, but I eat my own home grown tomatoes through the winter and into the spring.

    It’s just that I eat them in the form of sauce out of the freezer.

    Yeah, I actually do buy tomatoes on occasion, when the lettuce comes in the spring and BLT season begins. Local hothouse — not bad in flavor (even though they can’t compare), probably because they weren’t picked as unripe as the stuff traveling across the country.

  25. 25
    Martin says:

    And I bet every single one of them has A cards.

    The coaches almost always do. The last two: not a chance. No english, no green card. But 9 times out of 10 it’ll be some the best goddamn mexican food you’ve ever had – and most of the time stuff you can’t commonly find in restaurants.

    But otherwise, yeah, food safety here in CA is usually top rate.

  26. 26
    Citizen_X says:

    As an unabashed Taco Bell customer

    Now that’s far worse than dating a Republican! ;)

  27. 27
    jl says:

    @22 Martin,

    One of the things I miss about not living in Southern California anymore. I love that hideous looking hunks of candied winter squash and cactus. I can’t imagine trying to make it at home.

    Cactus candy recipe:,00.html

    And sapodillas and white sapotes. I would dive into the first crates of those I saw every year. I did not care what the store looked like. I figured I would wash them anyway. Only saw them in very heavily ethnic Mexican and Cental American neighborhoods.

  28. 28
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Citizen_X: Please. Look at it as a craving that comes up for a specific taste. An Oreo is not really a cookie either…Sometimes, that specific taste of freezer that is a frozen pizza is what you are after.

  29. 29
    caprine queen says:

    At least one of the V-8 plants is about a half hour from Sacramento, CA and surrounded by fields of determinite tomato plants. So your V-8 should come from California, and from what i’ve seen, it is all very mechanized.

  30. 30
    Yutsano says:

    @Suffern ACE: I consider myself a decent cook and a good arbiter of flavor and texture. Nevertheless I am seriously addicted to Totino’s frozen pizzas. Even Anthony Bourdain will confess his undying affection for KFC mac & cheese. I just don’t think humans are designed to be pure good for you always eaters.

  31. 31
    meander says:

    “Now, if I could just find out where the V-8 tomatoes are sourced…”

    In all likelihood, the tomatoes that go into V-8 were grown in California and picked by machines. Those tomatoes — variations of which are made into sauce, are canned, and are made into ketchup (all of Heinz’s tomatoes are grown in the state, using a proprietary variety), — were bred to be robust when processed and tough enough to be harvested by machines. But fresh, they are pretty lousy.

    A 2008 article in the San Francisco Chronicle called “California – tomato capital of the nation” had some interesting statistics about California tomatoes:

    [begin quote, because blockquote doesn’t work worth a damn]
    For 2007-08:

    — There is nearly a 90 percent chance that any commercially canned, jarred or bottled tomato product bought in the United States came from California.

    — California farmers grew 95 percent – 12.1 million tons – of the 12.7 million tons of tomatoes used for processing in the United States.

    — Just 225 growers in the Central Valley produce California’s entire crop of processing tomatoes – about 277,000 acres’ worth. Most grow their crop under contract for one of California’s 16 commercial tomato canneries.

    — Farmers can expect to receive 3.5 cents per pound for their processing tomatoes.

    — Three seed companies, Heinz, Bayer CropScience and Monsanto, supply 90 percent of the seed for the crop.

    — Americans buy the equivalent of roughly 1 million raw-product tons of processing tomatoes every month in the form of ketchup, soups and pasta and pizza sauces.
    [end quote]

  32. 32
    hamletta says:

    The lovely and talented Mark Bittman visited Immokalee this past spring on his “Where our food comes from” tour.

    He did a lovely piece on the organizing of the tomato pickers.

    Do notice his column title, “The True Cost of Tomatoes,” v. the browser title bestowed by the NYT: “Improved Condtions For Tomato-Harvest Workers.”

    Their story is one of the few recent successes of any labor movement.

    ETA: I’m not forgetting Wisconsin and the CA Nurses, but lifting people from something tantamount to slavery is way more awesome.

  33. 33
    BeccaM says:

    Last week, we stopped at our local farmers market — our preferred place to shop for vegetables as they’re always fresher, better tasting, and okay — not perfect. But they’re good.

    Among our many purchases, we got about a pound of tomatoes. They were oddly shaped and none of them exactly the same, yet they looked reasonable.

    I cut one up for a sandwich a day later and it was delicious and meaty and I could tell it had been ripened not just on a hunk of vine on the way to market, but on the plant itself. The following afternoon, I went back to the farmers market and at 99 cents a pound, bought 11 pounds worth.

    My wife is an amazing cook — and we ended up with 6 meals worth of delicious tomato sauce.

  34. 34
    hamletta says:

    Another way to enjoy summer’s bounty all year long, from my girl Deb at Smitten Kitchen.

  35. 35
    Wil says:

    Taco Bell? That’s just sad.

    I used to love V-8, until I read the label and saw the incredible amounts of sodium in each can/bottle.

  36. 36
    WereBear says:

    I took this as an inspirational story. If they have been working since the early ’90’s to help get rid of slavery; well, our goals might take a bit longer, too.

  37. 37
    alwhite says:

    I did a gig in Lamore CA a few years ago, right in the heart of the tomato season. There was a plant (Heinz? maybe not) right in the middle of no place & an endless line of huge trucks hauling what looked like roma tomatoes into it. What struck me besides the scale of the operation was how much waste there was. At times the highway looked like a scene from a horror movie, drenched in red from the thousands of tomatoes falling out of the trucks.

    Later visits I saw hand picking of other veggies & am sort of sympathetic to Grandpa Walnuts telling people they wouldn’t pick for $50/hour. It is miserable, shitty work even if they did treat the pickers properly (which I assume they don’t).

  38. 38
    Allen says:

    If anyone needed needed a reason another reason to grow their own tomatoes.

    First thing I plant if I move is tomatoes. Second is strawberries. In my case, the two necessities of life.

  39. 39
    Libby Spencer says:

    Haven’t bought tomatoes in the grocery store in many years except at my old Stop and Shop when they bought from the local farmers in season. But I live on V8 so glad to hear they’re not part of this awful Florida production. BTW, I actually need the sodium, but they do make a low sodium variety.

    Also, too, brussel sprouts are awesome.

  40. 40
    Mino says:

    Cento brand canned tomatoes. I watch Mario Batali to avoid Joe&Co. in the am. Listened to this hype on Italian tomatoes. Bought a can. Tasted it. You wont even recognize it as tomato. You’ll want to eat it with a spoon.

  41. 41
    Chinn Romney says:

    Yes, Cento is the best. And when I’m feeling flush with cash I spring for the cans with the DOP certification on them. Grown in the volcanic ash of Mt Vesuvious , or some such nonsense. But those are the creme de la creme. They cost a small fortune, but I’ve found that at my local market they sit on the shelves for quite a while, because few want to pay $3.50 for a can. The Manager finally caves just to get them off the shelves so marks them down, and I literally fill up a shopping cart with nothing but canned tomatoes. I get lots of funny looks and comments, but I get that even w/o the cart.

  42. 42
    cmorenc says:

    One of the joys of growing your own tomatoes is that you may get to meet one of the most scary-ugly plant pests ever ravaging your tomato plants, the tomato hornworm. They are a green Caterpillar that can quickly grow to the size of a small cigar feasting on your plants, yet their color and shape camouflage them so well that they are surprisingly difficult to see, even at that size. Fortunately, they can be controlled in perfectly organic manner by spraying on a solution of a particular bacteria which very quickly induces what amounts to a fatal case of gastritis in these pests, but which is harmless to humans.

  43. 43
    celticdragonchick says:

    I love those little Mexican drive up places in California like Burrito Track in Whittier. They have the authentic small corn tortillas with shredded machaca and cilantro. Yummy! Problem is, we don’t have them in North Carolina. So, I eat at Taco Bell.

    I really do like the Baja Blast Mountain Dew, I must admit.

  44. 44
    karen marie says:


    I made those slow-roasted cherry tomatoes several times and can vouch for them being absolutely spectacular!

  45. 45
    Karen says:

    How can a farm grown tomato contain more sodium?

  46. 46
    Comrade Colette Collaboratrice says:

    @Spaghetti Lee:

    Chris Matthews and Rich Lowery now have a new photo they can use to pleasure themselves.
    And how. Jeebus, Sarah, thrust that chest out a little more why dontcha?

    Holy cow, it’s Stephen Colbert in drag! Just look at that jawline and tell me I’m wrong.

    As for tomatoes, here in San Francisco I can grow Sun Golds reliably but otherwise it’s a crapshoot. About one year in four I get good red tasty tamaters, and the other three years it’s strictly lettuce weather (cold and damp). I wish I could grow a whole salad at the same time.

  47. 47
    dj spellchecka says:

    @ anne…thanks for the b-j hattip…never got one before

    wanted to note this one additional exchange from the npr interview

    RAZ: You describe that pesticides that have to be used and presumably, these workers are exposed to a lot of those pesticides.

    ESTABROOK: Well, in fact, the official Florida government handbook for commercial tomato growers lists 110 different herbicides, pesticides and fungicides that a farmer can apply to his tomatoes over the course of a season. And sadly, I’ve talked to three dozen workers, and I asked all of them the same question, you know, have you ever been sprayed. They said, man, all the time, two, three times a week.

  48. 48
  49. 49
    Gretchen says:

    I’d like to hear more about roasted, frozen tomatoes.

  50. 50
    Litlebritdifrnt says:

    As I have said before I a) grow my own and turn the glut into sauce for many pasta recipes later b) shop at the farmers market where you are guaranteed to get them there ugly as sin (giving the world the finger) but brilliant tasting maters ever, c) shop at Piggly Wiggly who are a brilliant outlet for our local growers that do not have the time to do the Farmer’s Market thing. Right now they have locally grown (and by that they mean the farmer delivered them by way of a pick up truck this morning) cantelopes, water melon, beans and potatoes. The corn and maters will be next. My fav time is when the peanut farmers bring in their crop, it is such a short window of opportunity but whoooo boy buy pounds and pounds and it is boiling time!

    PS) I have noticed that Yellow Pear which has a delightful flavor is a really really good mater to grow if you want to go organic and have a bug problem. For some reason a myriad of bugs do not like Yellow Pear and I have been blessed with many many pounds of perfect unblemished fruits.

  51. 51
    Anne Laurie says:

    Thanks everybody for the V8 info.

    I’d like to hear more about roasted, frozen tomatoes.

    I second Hamletta’s Smitten Kitten recommendation — in fact, H may be the one who introduced me to the concept, for which I owe her many thanks (& so does the Spousal Unit). You can do the same thing with full-sized tomatoes, just up the heat to 250 or even 300 degrees and plan for them took ‘cook down’ over 4 – 6 hours.

    Pretty well nervous-non-cook proof, as long as you don’t forget them completely. Cut each fruit in half, or quarters — this is a great way to use up the almost-too-ripe fruits & the ones with sun-cracking or minor insect damage, because you can just cut away the bad bits. Core the full-sized tomatoes if you’re feeling fastidious. Drizzle them with olive oil, scatter in some garlic bulbs (if you’re as lazy as I am, use pre-chopped garlic from a jar), set the tray(s) in the oven and check back every hour or so. You’ll know they’re “done” when most of the water is gone & the smell is irresistable…

    At that point, cherry tomatoes can be popped straight into a container, topped up with more olive oil to cover, and stored in the frig for salads/snacks/to add to pasta — or sealed & frozen for later use. With the full-sized tomatoes, I take them off the parchment paper, pull away whatever skin/seeds/core comes off easily, and freeze the remaining chunky pulp sealed in serving-size baggies.

    There are tons of recipes on the web with more refined instructions & details, but seriously: Even if you’re lazy, disorganized & kitchen-insecure, you can make incredibly delicious sauce this way. Only pro-tip I would add, for the non-cook: Buy a roll of parchment paper (same aisle as the saran wrap / aluminium foil) to line your cookie tray, because ‘non-stick’ aluminium foil will not substitute for this application. (The newfangled silicon baking sheets probably work, too, but if you’re like me, you don’t have a silicon baking sheet handy either, and parchment paper is cheaper.)

Comments are closed.