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Estabrook wins food writing ‘Oscar’

VERGENNES — For Vergennes writer Barry Estabrook, good things come in pairs.
At the James Beard Award ceremony last month, Estabrook took top honors for his food policy blog, “Politics of the Plate,” and he’s also preparing for the release on June 7 of his new book, “Tomatoland.”
The James Beard Awards are widely considered to be the “Oscars of the food world,” and the best individual blog award this year goes on the shelf next to the one Estabrook pulled in last year for an article he wrote for “Gourmet Magazine” on abusive working conditions in Florida tomato fields. This year he was nominated for an award for his article in “Gastronomica” about the struggling dairy industry.
Estabrook’s book takes up where his tomato article left off, taking a deeper look into the U.S. tomato industry and the labor — and policy — behind it. The book has already garnered praise from a number of big names in the world of food writing.
But for Estabrook, winning the James Beard Award for the four-year-old blog was a special honor.
“I feel good about it because the blog is a labor of love,” he said. “I do it because not enough people are doing it.”
Politics of the Plate began as a blog on the website of the now-defunct “Gourmet” magazine. As a contributing editor, Estabrook found that he was doing far more research on food policy than ever made it into one of his articles.
“I said, look, I read all this stuff anyway,” he said.
After a while the blog, which started out as an ongoing catalog of links to articles around the web, evolved into a journalistic endeavor in its own right.
“There are so many out there who just spew and link,” he said. “I try to do some original reporting almost every time.”
Estabrook came to Vermont from Ontario, Canada, in the early 1990s to take a job as the founding editor of “Eating Well” magazine in Charlotte, and since then has moved on to write about agriculture and policy for many of the top food publications. He writes about national food policy issues, but he said it’s inspiring to come back to Vermont and see how committed people in the state are to building more fair, sustainable agricultural systems.
“I was talking to a veteran organic grower in the Central Valley (in California) last month, and it made me proud because he went on and on about how far Vermont has come in terms of our local food system, particularly given our climate.”
And though “Gourmet,” where he worked for 10 years, closed its doors in 2009, Estabrook held onto the blog. His posts appear both on his blog at politicsoftheplate.com and on the “Atlantic Monthly” website. And while Estabrook said the blog doesn’t make him any money, it has served as a jumping-off point for larger pieces. Estabrook said he originally blogged about a campaign among Florida tomato pickers to get Burger King to pay them 1 cent more per pound of tomatoes picked. This may not seem like much, but Estabrook said it works out to a jump from about $50 to $70 per day — which could mean the difference between surviving or not.
That issue led to his award-winning piece on tomatoes last year, which sparked a small degree of political change in the tomato industry. Florida politicians responded to the labor conditions, prompted by pressure from constituents, and some larger companies that hadn’t been aware of the penny-per-pound campaign made a commitment to purchasing tomatoes at fairer prices.
But there was still much to be explored on the Florida labor issue, and to Estabrook it opened up other issues as well. He wrote “Tomatoland” for a closer look at that particular fruit, and how it became the bright red, tasteless fruit found on supermarket shelves across the nation.
“A grower said to me, ‘I don’t get paid for how my tomatoes taste. People don’t take a bite of it before they leave the supermarket,’” said Estabrook.
The book became a closer look at the agricultural systems devoted to tomato production, from the field laborers to supermarket shelves. It examines the labor conditions in the Florida fields following up on that original “Gourmet” article.
“You’ve got people enslaved,” said Estabrook.
And he said the term “slavery” is no exaggeration — workers are kept in chains, locked up at night, forced to work even if they are too sick or tired, and threatening runaways with shooting. In some cases, he said, this has come to pass.
“It sounds a lot more like 1850 than 2011,” he said.
Estabrook said this is the lowest rung on a spectrum of labor abuse and unfair working conditions.
“Even the highest ranking (pickers) have no job security, no overtime, no benefits. They have to be available to work but there’s no guarantee they will work.”
“Instead of looking at the bigger agricultural system, instead of doing what Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser did when they tried to embrace a lot of things, I tried to go very narrow. To see the same things through something everybody can relate to: a tasty tomato.”
So what’s Estabrook’s best advice for healing the tomato industry — and the agricultural system?
He described a sign at Eat Good Food in Vergennes before it closed.
“‘We will not be putting tomatoes on our sandwiches until we can find some that meet our standards,’” he said, recalling its message. “That little bit of rebellion is saying, no, we want to buy food that meets our standard. Not industrial (tomatoes), which meet their standards.
“Grow a tomato, even if you just have a little place for a patio pot,” he said. “It will give you real tomatoes, and connect you with (the idea) that food grows. Or go to the farmers’ market and you can get the same thing.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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