Tomato Season Is Here and America Is Obsessed


When I got home from my tomato expedition, I read a tweet from the comedian Sarah Lazarus that made me feel like someone had put a camera inside my apartment. “Every day we have to wake up, confront the most upsetting shit we’ve ever seen, and then walk around obeying laws and saying ‘it’s tomato season,’” she wrote. On social media, the grotesque and silly all get swept together in one endless stream, dizzying and outrageous. Chernobyl selfies get uploaded next to pics from last week’s beach day. Tomatoes—wholesome, unextravagant, and endlessly photogenic—exist somewhere in the comforting middle, a mundane joy in an absurd world.

I hadn’t just wanted any tomatoes that morning, but good tomatoes. Heirlooms or field-grown South Jersey beefsteaks, fat with juice that will run down your forearm, brightly colored in shades of red, orange, and yellow, mixed with brilliant greens. The best tomatoes don’t end up in conventional grocery stores alongside the bland hothouse variety you see all year. Instead, you have to seek them out at appointed times and places, from farmers’ markets or vegetable stands that often have odd hours. Good tomatoes are made even more rare by the American food system. Acquiring a few is the $5 version of finally getting a day at the beach.

In New York City, good-tomato season lasts a scant six weeks, from early August to mid-September. Every late-summer tomato is a miracle, arriving when the heat has been around too long but most people aren’t yet ready to hurtle into the yawning darkness of winter. This is a tense time of the year in the city: Violent crime rates are higher when it’s hot. Subway platforms are so sweltering that they become a health hazard. People who haven’t had a summer vacation are cheek to jowl with those who make weekly Hamptons escapes. Few crops can ground you so firmly in a time and place, and on such a particular edge.

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Psychologists often use the term sublimation to describe a defense mechanism that transforms socially unacceptable impulses into less harmful acts. It’s what you do when you can’t do what you want; people sublimate their desires or rage or despair. Maybe you tidy up your closet to avoid going deeper into credit-card debt by buying new clothes. Maybe you keep your grout so clean because of paranoia that your spouse is cheating on you. Maybe you avoid screaming at your boss by leaving the office to buy your third latte of the day.

On the internet, a type of sublimation seems to happen on a mass scale when social-media users all try to process traumatic or stressful news together and in public. As others have speculated, it may not be a coincidence that a joke raid to free Area 51’s imprisoned aliens cropped up at a time when so many refugees are imprisoned in camps at the border. Some people might pour their anxiety about shootings in America into the giddy joy of a somewhat nonsensical and instantly viral meme about dozens of feral hogs.


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