My 2 green tomatoes and the 100 mile diet

Very much to my surprise, two days ago I found 2 medium size San Marzano tomatoes on one of the 4 tomato plants I have in my front yard. These plants are part of a rather modest attempt at reconnecting with the earth and the work involved in food production,  and the yield doesn’t keep me canning for weeks exactly. Usually there isn’t much to harvest in this climate zone (except for some herbs) until July. The timing must have caught even the raccoons by surprise, as they usually race me to the harvest, and last year got at least 70 % of what little produce I managed to produce. (And here I could have inserted my usual rant about what I think of the way they “enjoy” my vegetables, but I’ll spare you).

San Marzano tomatoes, at their best, bring out the most wonderful memories from my 10 years in Tuscany. The juiciness, the sweetness, the smell (which I’d describe as “tangy and earthy with a hint of pepper”). Not everything about Tuscany is quite like the dreams of tourists, or certain cheesy films I’ve seen, but the tomatoes and zucchini certainly come very close to being Heaven on earth. Shopping at the morning vegetable markets, haggling over prices and fighting for your place in line may be like purgatory, but it’s worth it in the end. In Tuscany it is also quite possible to live a lush life on the 100-mile diet – and a 200 mile diet would be worthy of a king.

In the region I originate from, that is far from the case. On the Norwegian coast North of the Arctic circle, fish is plentiful, but the fruits of the earth are rather limited: potatoes, rutabaga, turnip, cabbage, carrots and onions. Yes, and lettuce  and herbs for 2-3 months. Under these conditions, the 100-mile diet, turns into a really efficient weight-loss diet.

I still remember the first time I tasted a tomato. I must have been 4 or 5 and was finally let in to the adult world of the Smörgåsbord (actually it’s not called that in Norwegian, but it leaves a clear image in the mind of English-speakers), with its nicely decorated open-face sandwiches with cold-cuts, cheeses and herring. I had seen a smart-looking, triangular half-slice of bread with ox-tongue (sic! such was my childhood diet), beautified with 2 wedges of tomato and one thin slice of cucumber. Now, the cucumber I knew, and I knew it to be innocuous. And the cucumber was an honest little green: it looked watery, and it tasted watery. The bright red of the tomato gave whole different set of expectations, though. I bit into it, convinced it would be sweet, sort of like an apple, and was brutally disappointed. Anyone who’s tasted one of those wintertime green-house tomatoes, that for lack of sunshine taste like snow (except they don’t melt in your mouth), know what I’m talking about. It took me years to want get near them again, but when I did,  a passionate love-affair began.

By the time the first tomato reached my palate, it had already travelled far.  I’m not just talking about that specific tomato (that may have come from a Norwegian or Dutch greenhouse) but about the tomato as a culture plant. The so-called “discovery” of America, initiated probably the largest transfer of culture plants in human history, and ended up changing food cultures in all of Europe. It’s difficult to imagine Mediterranean cuisine without tomatoes, or Northern and Eastern Europe without the potato.

The globalization of food production and food origin is thus no new phenomenon. Globalization sometimes gets used as a tag for all things negative: exploitation of workers and resources, social dumping, ecological crisis, monocultures and lack of control of the cycle of production. And globalization is certainly connected to all that, but it is also a path towards information sharing and integration of knowledge, sharing of inter-cultural contacts and possibly the development of a new conciousness with a global perspective. If I look at my tomatoes through the lens of globalization, I’ve learnt to appreciate tomatoes, how to cook them and grow them through globalization.

The 100-mile diet started out as a personal challenge against globalization by a couple that discovered the average meal in North America travels 1500 miles before you sit down to eat it. The consequences of this, both in terms of carbon footprint, the effect on local agriculture, and lack of control of the ethical and food safety aspects of food production, can give anyone vertigo.

For a while, the idea of eating purely locally resonated with me. Then, as the “Eat locally” -movement grew in strength, it hit me, eating locally has some profound consequences too. And not all of these consequences are positive. Eating locally means closing the rest of the world out, it means isolation from countries that rely on agricultural exports. Eating locally means changing the way you eat, and not necessarily in a positive way. The place where I grew up, and the place where I live now, would naturally be fit for a certain kinds of food production: dairy, meat, wheat and root vegetables. A diet centred around these items would mean giving up most of what I eat and also living a lot of months on refrigerated vegetables from last season. Certainly one can start growing other produce, but that would rely heavily on greenhouses, and be rather far away from our mental image of the romantic small farmer working the land.

Much to my relief, when somebody sat down and did the math on the carbon footprint of “foreign” and “local” food, the answers weren’t quite as expected. In reality, the carbon footprint of food production isn’t as much related to transportation from site of production to retailer, as by other factors.

This discovery doesn’t bring me to opposite side, claiming that we should not care about where our food comes from, and that market mechanisms will regulate the rest. I still try to buy as much as possible of my produce from local farmers markets, but I don’t do it out of a clear ideological idea that this is the only right thing to do. I do it because local fresh vegetables are invariably fresher and better tasting than vegetables harvested before they were ripe and then shipped off . I do it because I believe in maintaining the cultural landscape of small-scale farmers as a barrier against wild-west developers. I do it because I like to feel the connection with those who work the land, and it helps me understand that in order to live as farmers the prices must be just.

And on that last note: Caring for my two green tomatoes is a humbling experience. And it is a learning experience. When I think of all the work that goes into producing a few kilograms of tomatoes, I’m awe-struck and full of admiration for whoever works the land. And I think that whatever I buy in the organic sector of the supermarket is dirt cheap.


~ by Hege on June 19, 2010.

3 Responses to “My 2 green tomatoes and the 100 mile diet”

  1. When I lived in Canada, I used to miss too my Italian tasty and juicy Italian tomatoes… God only knows how they grow food in North America only to obtain fantastically good-looking fruit and produce that taste… nothing.
    Unfortunately, even here in Italy things are changing for the worse. Not only in this sunny peninsula does the produce taste now less and less but it also costs a fortune. Alas, it seems that our lovely tomatoes (along with most of our fruit and vegetables) have fallen victim of our most popular world hallmark- the Italian mafia.
    More about this sad news development read:

  2. My 2 green tomatoes and the 100 mile diet…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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