Tuesday, September 4, 2007

You say tomato

At lunch today, I had a quite good salad. Except the tomatoes were not what I'd imagined they would be. You see, I was in a place where things are good. And it's tomato season so I just assumed that they'd use some ripe, flavorful, locally grown tomatoes. After all, they're only around for a short while - why wouldn't you? Naturally, I realized, they cost quite a bit more; and it was a simple as that.

Or was it?

I was thinking about the modern commercial history of the tomato. At one time, when they were in season, they were plentiful and inexpensive. At other times of year, it was understood that there essentially were no tomatoes. One could, if they insisted, purchase some relatively expensive, flavorless, cell0-packed product in the off season. But it was understood that this was a tomato in name only. Most of the time you'd simply do without. In those days, local, seasonal, flavorful tomatoes were understood to be TOMATOES. The other kind were understood to be tomato substitutes.

But with the passage of time, something pernicious has happened. It's not just that we've become accustomed to inferior products - it's that we've come to regard such product as TOMATOES. Worse, we've come to regard the local, seasonal, vine-ripened tomato as an exotic foodstuff. It's not just a tomato any more - it's something more. It's vine-ripened, or it's an Heirloom, or it's whatever it is. But it is not just a tomato any more. Our language has changed. Our mental model of tomatoes has changed. We have been reprogrammed.

And now, even at the height of the season when they're plentiful, these exotic fruits sell for high prices and the flavorless alternative (once only sold in the off-season) remains the default expected tomato - and for all but the well-off it is the only economically feasible possibility.

Who stole our language? Why did we let them?
I am noshstalgic.

No comments: