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October 29, 2007

Of Markets and Tomatoes

Far be it for me to argue with Brad DeLong about economics, but his response to a commenter bemoaning the absence of fresh, taste-driven produce during his childhood seems a bit off-base. Rubber tomatoes, the commenter writes, were all the stores carried, because they were all that would survive the trip, all that would endure throughout the entire year, all that seemed profitable. In reply, Brad says, "Why didn't you taste a tomato worth eating for the first twenty years of your life? What stopped you? Was some commissar standing over your parents waving a kalishnikov? Or did your parents just not think it was worth the extra money?"

Or maybe there weren't any around. As I said above, I would never argue with Brad about economics. But I will let Joel Waldfogel do so, by way of his new book The Tyranny of the Market. As he argues, the market often makes decisions much as a crude central planner would make them, advantaging majority preferences to the point that minority products just about vanish from the market. So it may well be that in the days of the rubber tomato's hegemony, in the place where Brad's commenter lived, there simply weren't any delicious, flavorful, tomatoes. There wasn't a farmer's market, or a specialty produce store. There was just the type of tomato that the local grocery thought would make them the most money. And that was a rubbery tomato. In recent years, Whole Foods and others have shown that consumers will pay for better produce, and eating seasonally has come into vogue, so minority preferences in food have grown large enough to give most urban and upscale customers access to finer products. But that's hardly a universal situation even now, and it certainly wasn't then. You could go through life never tasting a good tomato because you simply didn't know there was any type of tomato beyond what you bought at Safeway.

October 29, 2007 in Economics | Permalink

Comments

Here comes the Flame Deluge.

Cranky

Besides the obvious allusion, that is a reference to the hidden-hand-uber-alles types that will shortly be here to roast Ezra for his utterly flawed understanding of economics and human nature.

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Oct 29, 2007 11:11:43 AM

I have a vague memory of a news story about an allegedly tasty tomato grown in Florida that was prohibited from export (out of Florida) because it did not conform to the Ag Dept.'s proper shape.

It seems today that even the roadside markets have tomatoes no better than those found in a grocery.

The best tomatoes I have had lately are in the tomato and mozzarella salad at Ruth Chris steak house. Better take out a loan if you intend to eat more than the salad when you go, however.

Posted by: Mudge | Oct 29, 2007 11:14:43 AM

Mudge - the Uglyripe. Don't remember how that turned out, too lazy to google.
Incidentally, the comments to that post are rather good.

Posted by: Dan S. | Oct 29, 2007 11:18:29 AM

the book seems like it would be better entitled 'scarcity: why you can't always get what you want'.

Posted by: pimp hand strikes! | Oct 29, 2007 11:26:30 AM

There is a market disfunctionality at work in produce. Here in Oregon (where lots of thinks that are grown locally and taste just great), the farmers (mostly organic) complain that the supermarkets just won't do business with them. The store managers are not trained for local buying, and the distribution system is structured for volume wholesalers.

Whole Foods is a partial exception - but even during the peak of the local tomato season, 'heritage' tomatoes here were over $5.00/pound - about the price of local pork loins raised naturally. And yes, they are fabulous tasting, but must be eaten quickly - no leaving the tomato on your counter/refrigerator for a week as you can do with the rubber substitutes. Almost daily shopping is required.

For those who want good produce, farmer's markets seem to be the only solution, but this requires a French approach to food shopping: daily trips to specialty retailers for each category of food (bread, beef, chicken, vegetables, fruit, etc.) Our retail shopping habits and store locations just don't support this kind of living in cities and suburbs. We are doomed to rubber tomatoes until the next universe is born after the big un-bang.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Oct 29, 2007 11:27:54 AM

There is a market disfunctionality at work in produce. Here in Oregon (where lots of thinks that are grown locally and taste just great), the farmers (mostly organic) complain that the supermarkets just won't do business with them. The store managers are not trained for local buying, and the distribution system is structured for volume wholesalers.

Whole Foods is a partial exception - but even during the peak of the local tomato season, 'heritage' tomatoes here were over $5.00/pound - about the price of local pork loins raised naturally. And yes, they are fabulous tasting, but must be eaten quickly - no leaving the tomato on your counter/refrigerator for a week as you can do with the rubber substitutes. Almost daily shopping is required.

For those who want good produce, farmer's markets seem to be the only solution, but this requires a French approach to food shopping: daily trips to specialty retailers for each category of food (bread, beef, chicken, vegetables, fruit, etc.) Our retail shopping habits and store locations just don't support this kind of living in cities and suburbs. We are doomed to rubber tomatoes until the next universe is born after the big un-bang.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Oct 29, 2007 11:28:41 AM

When I was young (50 years ago), and you wanted good produce, you 1) grew it or 2) bought it at a city-run farmers market near the center of town. That was it. I have no clue where Brad thinks ordinary people should have gone if they couldn't do 1) and didn't have 2).

Posted by: David in NY | Oct 29, 2007 11:35:38 AM

Mudge, I think a fair number of roadside stands are simply quaintly shaped markets, that get their produce at the grocer's wholesale market and re-sell it. If you seen non-local or out of season produce, it is good odds the whole market is not a farmstand.

***

I am convinced that economists overestimate how much people like to shop around. Especially shop around for a good they don't know exists.

Posted by: Megan | Oct 29, 2007 11:36:21 AM

An economist making judgments based on a model that in no way corresponds to human behavior, and then attacking a person for failing to adhere to that model? Yeah, that's not a new one.

Posted by: Dan | Oct 29, 2007 11:53:05 AM

Exactly right, Ezra. Coffee is another case in point; our parents and grandparents drank bad coffee not because they were cheap but because bad coffee was what the majority wanted, so it was imposed on everyone.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Oct 29, 2007 12:02:05 PM

"Here comes the Flame Deluge."

A heirloom tomato for Leibowitz?

Posted by: Dan S. | Oct 29, 2007 12:03:56 PM

Old fogey here: farmer's markets were a rarity back in the day. Frozen vegetables were a huge technological (and flavor) leap over the canned ones everyone was used to (Popeye anyone?)... And good tomatoes were available when you grew them.

Posted by: Dukej | Oct 29, 2007 12:09:36 PM

> A heirloom tomato for Leibowitz?

I am sure Leibowitz could have bought fresh kraut instead of canned if he had been willing to pay a little more for it.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Oct 29, 2007 12:17:52 PM

I agree with dukej and would also like to point out what my brother pointed out to me which is that fresh produce was simply unavailable to most people after they moved off the farms and was, in fact, too expensive unless canned or frozen so although purists may bemoan the tasteless tomatoes that many of us were raised on they were actually a step up from what was available to most urban dwellers before genetic manipulation and mass market shipping/cooling etc...made the tasteless tomato possible.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Oct 29, 2007 12:37:51 PM

megan is right, by the way, a "farmstand" falls under different liscencing and taxation laws than a supermarket and in this area many a major store still styles itself a "farmstand" even when the majority of their goods are actually trucked in from out of state. They preserve their standing by having a small home farm attached.

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Oct 29, 2007 12:39:44 PM

> which is that fresh produce was simply unavailable to
> most people after they moved off the farms and was, in
> fact, too expensive unless canned or frozen so although
> purists may bemoan the tasteless tomatoes that many of
> us were raised on they were actually a step up from
> what was available to most urban dwellers before
> genetic manipulation and mass market shipping/cooling
> etc...made the tasteless tomato possible.

I think it was one of William Whyte's books where a traditional horsehair-and-lath plasterer made the observation that no one ever tried bringing modern engineering and manufacturing techniques to wet plaster after wallboard was invented. It was true, he said, that wallboard was initially less expensive - but the price for that was that it required ever-increasing capital investments and transferred a local small business to a remote large corporation. And that the relentless logic of capital required wallboard factories to get larger and larger, and require more and more capital, rather than ever going back to see if the initial decision to move away from wet plaster still made sense.

It seems to me that the same thing applies to industrial food: at first it seemed like a good thing, increasing availability and lowering price. But after a few rounds of improvement it may have become a devil's bargain (or maybe not) - only we never looked back to see if that was the case.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Oct 29, 2007 12:50:42 PM

Rubber tomatoes were of course part of a broader trend - tying together different strands: economics, genetics, shipping, marketing, and also social/cultural aspects - that brought us, for example, perfectly uniform Red Delicious apples shipped from Washington (to the Hudson Valley!) which were very red and very far from delicious, etc. I'd tend to stress the social and cultural aspects - not to downgrade the very real others, just as a measure of balance - which brought us first a cuisine perfectly fitting the glossy, conformity-friendly,deracinated, insta-grown and rootlessly a-historical suburbs (often entombing previously agricultural land and lifeways) in which it flourished, epitomized by the jello mold and other such objects of culinary nostalgia-horror,
and then - spearheaded by the children and grandchildren of that time - sought to bring us back to a (countercultural, at least initially) garden of authentically locally-grown seed-saved heirloom varieties, to recapture ethnic and homegrown foodways old and new, ancestral or simply diverse, served with hearty country-style whole-wheat bread - definitely not wonderbread! - along with/feeding off of a parallel movement of class distinction and appropriation smoothed by generous helpings of extra-virgin olive oil, fancy balsamic vinegar, and a proliferation of finely distinguished objects of connoisseurship and consumption, from heirloom tomatoes to artisan cheese to fancy coffee . . .

Geez, that's a run-on sentence. Look, I'm under the weather here - it's the fever speaking. (Either that, Cranky-O, or the little sleeping head growing out of my shoulder.) I wish I had more of my books on the subject, which are either still in storage or in back in various libraries - it's such a fascinating subject. And the various factors really do play off each other - so we have the mass migration to suburbia of folks shedding their urban-immigrant or rural-farm roots to pick up a culinary culture already remarkably insular and guilty of massive crimes against taste, horrified, for example, of garlic, which was associated with stinkin' Italians (even as traces of a wider world picked up during the war were already opening it up - thank you, St. Julia) which then further embraced the space-age prosperity of year-round rubber tomatoes (and the reassuring American middleclass sameness of bad coffee); but we also have the development of the suburb-serving supermarket, dependent on cars and long-distance, high-volume, reliable shipping, etc.

Posted by: Dan S. | Oct 29, 2007 12:52:43 PM

The demands of brand management are that products from a company be of consistent taste and quality. Thus, it's easier, from a brand perspective, to mass produce apples or tomatoes that are equally rubbery and tasteless though visually pleasing than it is to have tasy produce which might vary in sweetness and acidity and possibly have an inconsistent shape.

I remember once complaining to myself about the quality of the bananas at the supermarket one day. Then I remembered that it was december, and I should be thankful that I had access to bananas at all.

But even then, I realized I was "settling" for low quality. Nowadays, we consider the tasteless apples and rubbery tomatoes to be the "platonic ideal" of such produce without realizing that it's just a cheap, mass-produced knockoff of the real thing.

Posted by: Tyro | Oct 29, 2007 1:07:27 PM

"the market often makes decisions much as a crude central planner would make them, advantaging majority preferences to the point that minority products just about vanish from the market."

Yes, capitalism has even developed its own GUM department store: it's called Walmart.

Posted by: anon | Oct 29, 2007 1:17:09 PM

"I am sure Leibowitz could have bought fresh kraut instead of canned if he had been willing to pay a little more for it."

What I want to know is where he thought he was going to get even canned kraut, to say nothing of pastrami and bagels, in c. 1950s Arizona?

And one wonders how the "citizen journalists" of the Right would have treated poor Brother Francis - no doubt they'd be busy scrutinizing the kerning on said notes . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Oct 29, 2007 1:17:39 PM

"c. 1950s Arizona"

Utah, Utah, not Arizona. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Oct 29, 2007 1:19:46 PM

> Utah, Utah, not Arizona. Mea culpa,
> mea maxima culpa . . .

Somewhere in the Four Corners area, so you may have been right anyway. Miller never gave an exact location.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Oct 29, 2007 1:24:18 PM

We need Barbara Boxer to introduce the Tomato Consumers' Bill of Rights, legislation to ensure that such travesties as the denial of delicious, soft, juicy tomatoes to American consumers can never happen on our watch, no matter where you live!

DO SOMETHING, CONGRESS! ANYTHING!

Posted by: Ozwald | Oct 29, 2007 2:01:31 PM

Tomatoes at Whole Foods are really not that much better than tomatoes from less chic stores. Good tomatoes must be picked and eaten within a couple of days. Someone's garden, a roadside stand, or a farmers' market (in that order) are the only places to get a decent tomato. Genetic engineering is really the only hope for store-bought tomatoes.

Posted by: henry evans | Oct 29, 2007 2:29:19 PM

Of course, you only need really great tomatoes if you want to eat them raw. Mediocre tomatoes are okay cooked.

Posted by: henry evans | Oct 29, 2007 2:34:08 PM

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