The Five Dollar Tomato

It’s been a long time coming, this blog of mine (cue the twangy guitar intro) so I figured an explanation as to why I’m sharing my curiosities would be a good place to start.  The reasons are numerous, but at the crux of it all is the $5.00 tomato.

There was a time, not long ago, where our world was filled with plentiful and ripe tomatoes. These tomatoes came in just a few colors (red, yellow, maybe green).  They were not perfectly round, or perfectly smooth.  In fact, they were perfectly flawed. Because behind those imperfect tomato facades was a beautifully perfect taste – one that was luscious and full of flavor.  And to add to this perfection, there were vast quantities of these tomatoes, and they were priced for the “everyman”.  In short, they were a fairly consistent summer treat for the majority of the population, and one which we probably didn’t think too much about.

Cut to today (or yesterday, to be specific) – when yours truly was on a food shopping excursion in search of salad fixings.  As I entered the produce section, I went for my standard purchases, which nowadays consist of lettuce, a cucumber, and maybe a green pepper.  Almost never – ever – do I purchase a tomato.  And I don’t think I have to tell you why (but of course I will).  I see tomatoes quite often – at all times of the year, often perfectly red, almost always perfectly round.  Yet these perfect specimens belie that which lies beneath the surface.  Those perfectly flawed tomatoes of yesteryear – blemished on the outside, flavorful and luscious on the inside – are few and far between. Actually, scratch that – we know exactly which ones taste good nowadays, and where to find them (heirlooms, large and lumpy, in most farmer’s markets).  But despite the fairly consistent quality, the quantity (not as many) versus cost (fairly exorbitant) makes these flavorful tomatoes a rare treat for the “everyman.”

So what does all of this mean?  And why am I using this as my introductory metaphor?

We have spent several decades consuming ourselves to death.  We have demanded more of everything, and production has heeded our call.  Yet we are at a point where production can’t keep up with consumption.  The tricks of production (in this case, hothouses, or the shipment of produce from far-off places) is not an affordable answer. And when this happens, we start to see quality go down – the pace just can’t keep up with the demand.  Over time, this consistent ratio has blinded us to the quality of our products.

As economies all around the world are shifting, our lifestyles are shifting with them. Paying attention to our purchases and how we consume them is on everyone’s minds. And while it may feel slightly obsessive at times, the attention paid to our everyday habits is slowly starting to shift our patterns of consumption.

In the design profession, of which I am a part (interior design is my thing), we are trained to keep a careful eye on the world around us.  To see, and follow, and observe.  I watch and listen to those whom I work with, as well as those who simply pass me on the street. And one thing is certain – our need for better quality seems to be slowly overtaking our need to consume.  The scales are equaling out.  We will settle for smaller batches, or offerings, if that means even higher quality.  With any luck, this slow trend will start to pick up its pace, and our demand for quality – and the price we pay for it – will start coming back into balance.

I will start to get into specifics in the next few weeks, as I share with you some client stories that help bring this quality/quantity/cost ratio to light.  But for now, it’s dinner time, and I’m ready to eat.  Hothouse tomato, anyone?

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4 thoughts on “The Five Dollar Tomato

  1. I also don’t buy tomatoes in grocery stores anymore. Only heirlooms. And sadly they’re $5. But soooooo good :).

    Definitely need to watch out for when quantity/consistency is trumping quality in all walks of life.

  2. I have no clue about design or aesthetics (take one look into my closet and you’ll agree), but I couldn’t agree more about tomatoes, and, to one of your larger points, paying more for a real, unadulterated and more useful product.

    For the past few years, my personal policy has been to buy/eat tomatoes only during the few months they’re in season. (Peaches too, btw.) And even in season, I’ll never buy a mass-produced “supermarket” tomato tomato-like object. Not because I’m a food elitist (though that’s debatable), but because industrial supermarket tomatoes suck; they taste like red-colored water. But also because they’re an insult to the Tomato. I don’t mean to sound animist. What I do mean is: the purpose of eating a tomato is (a) to nourish one’s body, and (b) to savor its tomato-ness, its essence. Both of those are compromised in an industrial supermarket tomato. (In a trade-off for longer shelf life, better transportability, etc.)

    Blah, blah, blah, y’all get the point and probably know all this already (thank you Mr. Pollan & co.).

    But here’s the thing: very few people share our opinion. Most of my friends and family would balk at the thought of rejecting a tomato (-like-object) “just” because it’s February. Or paying more for a delicious heirloom variety instead of that cheaper supermarket pulp. And the real question is, why? Why do we feel one way, and they another? When you say,

    We will settle for smaller batches, or offerings, if that means even higher quality.

    I can only agree with you if “we” is you and me and the few people who feel the way we do. But I think you meant “we” as in “the general population,” and (alas) I’m not so sure I share your optimism.

    On that happy note… see you later! 🙂

    1. Alas, I do think my optimism often gets the better of me (darn glass half-full -ness and all). I do enjoy watching the shifting tide of consumerism, even if it doesn’t move as fast as “we” would like it to. But I do think we’re getting closer to an appreciation of quality products. We must be patient. Wait for it. It will come (or at least creep towards that direction, sometimes at a snail’s pace).

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