When a Tomato Becomes a Luxury

What makes an ingredient coveted? Colonization plays a role

Photo: Fun With Food/E+/Getty Images

This was first posted as the August 17 newsletter, “From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy.” You can sign up here.

August is the time of year when the tomato becomes a luxury item for many. Its ruby-red juiciness, its intensity of flavor — now is the moment at which the mundane becomes spectacular. Like spring for ramps in the U.S. northeast, summer for tomatoes is a thrilling time. Does a food have to bloom as its best self briefly and then disappear in order for it to be appreciated as a local, seasonal gem? A tomato, even in its best expression, is pretty accessible — so it’s not snobby, right? It’s luxurious for its fleetingness, not its cost.

A tomato, even in its best expression, is pretty accessible — so it’s not snobby, right? It’s luxurious for its fleetingness, not its cost.

Luxury in food and beverage works on those two levels: something prized for its fleetingness, others for their cost. Both levels are present in, say, a truffle or chanterelles. These things emerge from the earth, and that emergence is generally respected. Such cases in food, where industrialization and efficiency have been overvalued and globally enforced, are rare specimens themselves.

In her piece “Resources” in The Development Dictionary, Vandana Shiva writes:

In contrast to the knowledge system created through the scientific revolution, ecological ways of knowing nature are necessarily participatory. Nature herself is the experiment and ordinary people are the scientists, as sylviculturalists, agriculturists and water experts. Their knowledge is ecological and plural, reflecting both the diversity of natural ecosystems and the diversity in cultures that nature-based living gives rise to.

“Ecological and plural” knowledge won’t be respected unless the people who hold that knowledge are respected and allowed the fullness of self-determination. Shiva goes on, “Throughout the world, the colonization of diverse peoples was, at its root, a forced subjugation of ecological concepts of nature, and of the earth as the repository of all forms, latencies and powers of creation, the ground and cause of the world.”

That is why truffles and wine are generally respected, protected, and why chocolate, sugar, and coffee are not — where the people are or have been colonized, so too will be the agriculture, and thus the products of that agriculture will be overproduced, exported, and made mundane. (Imagine anyone writing about sugar, as J. Kenji Lopez-Alt did of truffles in 2011, “Truffles are snob food, by definition, and their attempted democratization was one of the largest culinary crimes ever committed.” Ever committed?)

That is why truffles and wine are generally respected, protected, and why chocolate, sugar, and coffee are not — where the people are or have been colonized, so too will be the agriculture, and thus the products of that agriculture will be overproduced, exported, and made mundane.

Where the people are exploited, so too will be the food. (Of course, wine has its own labor issues, but despite this, people will still write lines like, “Wine is a uniquely human celebration of a uniquely human product” when that can be said of… nearly everything we eat and drink. Wine’s singularity and significance are rarely challenged.)

There’s no reason why chocolate — all chocolate — shouldn’t be understood as a luxury, with diverse expressions of cacao terroir named, respected, discussed. But that only happens in the smallest of forums, and it’s mocked in the general culture to care about such things as chocolate, or coffee, or sugar. I’ve said it before, but people who would generally claim to care about matters of social justice or decolonization turn the other way when it comes to the commodities upon which their days and pleasures are built. They would prefer the land be exploited somewhere else rather than understand most of what they eat as a luxury, to be regarded as preciously as the August tomato or the wildly priced truffle tasting menu at a fine-dining restaurant.

This is a matter of decolonization, though, which I’ve discussed recently with Anna Sulan Masing and Sana Javeri Kadri. Jonathan Nunn just covered it in an essay for Vittles. It’s about changing one’s framework from centering the European; it’s about not seeing the world in a series of binaries — how much richer and more true that is. As Kadri said, it’s about extending the same respect and interest to every ingredient:

But seeing that that same supply chain doesn’t extend globally at all — the minute anything came from the quote-unquote ‘ethnic food aisle,’ nobody cared. And I started asking buyers, I started asking chefs, where their stuff was coming from. And nobody had an answer for me. If it was coming from Spain or France, that was one thing. Like espelette peppers, Spanish saffron. Well, that’s a whole other thing. But there was more discussion around that. Whereas when I talked about, ‘Well, what about India? You’re saying this stuff is coming from India. Where is it coming from?’ I got the most absurd responses.

A lot of moves are made lately to recognize historical instances of injustice, but they only go so far. While it was absolutely astounding to see dedication from the cookbook Oats in the North, Wheat from the South by Regula Ysewijn acknowledge that slavery was an essential part of bringing sugar to the UK — “Sugar has a cost,” she wrote, “and that cost was paid by those held in bondage” — that’s only a start: Sugar continues to be an opaquely farmed, harvested, and processed good that is undervalued. (We know this quite clearly from issues in rum.)

As Lillian Guerra wrote in 2014 in “Why Caribbean History Matters”:

Slavery is also a living memory in the Caribbean because its greatest legacy is still with us — a legacy that is mostly invisible and yet resides in the clothes we wear and probably much of the food we eat. Before the mass production by slaves of stimulants like sugar, coffee, tobacco, and chocolate, people had never had the experience of consuming a commodity on a daily basis whose production process was “invisible.” For hundreds of years, Europeans ate sugar every day, never stopping to think that the cost of producing the sugar was human life. Pleasure justified the enslavement of nine million human beings and the wholesale destruction of African cultures, political systems, and lives.

Today, the invisibility of the labor that goes into the production of consumer goods is probably one of the greatest legacies of slavery.

Climate change will force more migration, creating ever more precariously protected labor forces, and it will also have detrimental effects on crops from the global north long considered precious and distinct, worthy of snobbery — their attempted democratization “a culinary crime.” How will this change our perspective on luxury? If we continue to produce so much of everything, extracting from the earth without giving back, without participating ecologically in our own world, will value systems change as ecosystems inevitably do?

For me, it is luxurious to eat a spoonful of beans, to toast a slice of sourdough, to char an eggplant in its flesh over open fire. Every crystal of sugar, every cup of coffee, every bite of chocolate — these are luxuries; these are precious; these are from the earth and came from someone’s labor. Food is a human right; food is also luxury, pleasure. These aren’t mutually exclusive ideas, and they’re not mutually exclusive pursuits.

When I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine, I often start to talk about some approaching doomsday of climate apocalypse; I talk about how we’re tasting the end of something, in our glasses. I want to know I’ve savored every bit of it all, as though everything in front of me is the reddest, juiciest August tomato. As though everything is a luxury, regardless of its simplicity or its accessibility. Luxury, to me — it’s this point where knowledge and pleasure meet. I seek it every day.

I’m a food writer from Long Island based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter on food issues: aliciakennedy.substack.com

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