Tomato season, no matter how long it lasts, always seems painfully short to me. Real tomatoes, with all their juicy flavorful delight, are an incomparable treat. I've been making sauce, tomato juice, a fancy tomato-and-melon soup, a simple and amazingly good tomato-and-green bean dish, tomato sandwiches, BLTs, and of course, just plain old sliced tomatoes with a little drizzle of olive oil and balsamic, and maybe some mozzarella and fresh basil. Tomorrow I'm going to concoct a roasted heirloom tomato Bloody Mary mix for a friend of mine. I know the tomatoes will be gone soon and so I eat as many as I can now.
I eat through the seasons courtesy of the wonderful farmers who come each week to the markets I frequent. I eat what they are growing and have to sell; the Z-table features whatever they've got. Today one of my favorite farmers asked me if I was a vegetarian. No, I said, it's just that when there's so much good stuff available, we tend to eat more of it and go lighter on the meat. (Side effect: cheaper, and better for our health. Mr. Z asked me once, "Am I becoming a vegetarian?" Ha ha! Veggie by stealth!)
Today at the farm market I got into a conversation about farming's travails with one of my favorite farmers. They did not suffer too badly from Irene. Many young fruit trees were blown over by the wind and had to be restaked; the corn was blown down, but could still be harvested. (He feels for the farmers with large corn crops that are normally harvested mechanically. It will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to run a mechanical harvester across the blown down rows. For sure they will only be able to go in one direction, not turn and go back and forth across the field like they normally do. They'll have to make one pass, then turn and go all the way back up the field and start over.) Peaches took a beating, and the cantaloupes may be done, but the watermelons are harvested and will keep for awhile. The blackberries came through unscathed.
Irene was not the main aggravation on his mind, however. Stinkbugs were, and a new devastating invasive pest, the Asian spotted wing fruit fly. Stinkbugs poke into ripening fruit and leave only a small blemish - the fruit could still be saleable - but the punctured skin leaks scent and juices that attract hornets and yellow jackets. The fruit fly, however, is a real nightmare. Normally fruit flies are attracted to rotting fruit but these flies come to ripening fruit on trees and vines and lay their eggs, which mature and decimate the fruit.
The farmer said his raspberry crop was infested. He had to pick off every fruit and discard them, spray thoroughly, and continue to discard ripening fruit for a week. He said this new pest, combined with the stinkbugs, is making him rethink the whole idea of organic farming. His family has tried to do organic farming, partly because they believe in it for the good of the land and partly because customers want it, but he is sickened by seeing the literal fruits of his labor ruined just before time to go to market. There was anger in his voice as he spoke about this, and about people who want to buy fruits and vegetables shipped from China because they are cheap, or because it's something interesting. Every time you bring a fruit or vegetable in this country from China, he said, you are taking the chance to bring in another pest, and you are hurting me, and you are hurting agriculture in this country. I wouldn't eat anything from China, he said.
He also talked about GM corn. Worms get in to his corn, of course, and they do light spraying to control the worms, even though some of the "organic only" crowd fusses about this and hesitates to purchase oh noes! the lightly sprayed wormless corn. He looked into a type of GM corn that is resistant to worms, but ended up deciding against growing it for three reasons. (1) Lots of his customers don't want to eat GM crops. (2) They make you sign all kinds of paperwork to get the seed and grow the corn, and you are not allowed to save seed. You have to buy it again each year, and it's just too expensive. (3) It simply doesn't taste as good; "Who wants to eat cardboard?" He's not opposed to GMOs on principle, but is unwilling to compromise on flavor, and dislikes losing the autonomy of being able to save his own seed. On this latter point: he talked about the issue of some GM soybeans that are designed with self-terminating seeds - they cannot reproduce. He thinks this is madness, and is worried that making seed sterile is a trait that might spread into the wild population. All in all, he doesn't see GMOs as providing any value for him at this time. One of the main points of his operation is to provide the markets with locally grown food with a taste far superior to that in the supermarkets, which helps justify the somewhat higher price that allows him to make a living and keep going. GMOs that resist pests but have no flavor are of no real help.
Time and again I am staggered to realize how hard the farmers work, constantly, day in and day out, to bring their produce to the markets. The food they grow is wonderful. It takes more time (and the money, and the utensils) to prepare and cook fresh produce than, say, ordering take-out, or heating up a tv dinner in the microwave. Everything in our lives is stacked against us devoting that time to food prep. We are pushed toward the baguette dispenser and away from the bakery, but we owe it to ourselves and to the farmers, and to the kind of life we would like the children of today to have when they grow up, to resist that push as much as possible. In some parts of Philadelphia, there are young kids who have never seen fresh vegetables and cannot identify them by sight. A world in which young children do not know what a tomato looks like, let alone how good a true fresh tomato tastes, is one we should feel shame to inhabit.