6 February 2007
Tomatoes and the homeless
After living for a while in Asia, people who grow up knowing what a real tomato smells and tastes like often long for a juicy vine-ripened beefsteak. Tomatoes here are really crappy. Thanks to decades of inbreeding, Asian tomatoes have become mongrels with no taste, no aroma and no texture. They are usually picked green, then gassed to make them turn red. (Really!) There is probably no reason delicious heirloom tomatoes can not be grown here except that nobody has decided to grow them.
So I decided to grow my own with seeds sent by Gary Ibsen in California. He is the world's Mr. Tomato. Sadly, thebalcony of my tenth floor condominium has only enough room for about two plants. So my solution was to have a farm of my own. Until recently I owned a restaurant in Siem Reap (Angkor Wat, Cambodia) and it seemed like the perfect place. My staff and I found some spectacular land near Phnom Kulen, with black soil and a stream gushing from the nearby mountains. The family living there had cleared only half of their land and they were growing all kinds of things. They love farming and love their land and were enthusiastic about the idea of clearing the rest of their land to grow my tomatoes, herbs, beans, beets, corn and all kinds of other things with high quality seeds from the U.S.
About a month ago my waiters, bartender, chef and I made the trip by motorbike to the foot of Phnom Kulen to see the progress of the project. The hour-long trip through the countryside was spectacular, but we arrived to find sad faces. A government official (reportedly the local parliamentary representative) had "offered" to buy their land at a fraction of its value. Otherwise the long unpaved road to the farm from the main road would be blocked, leaving the family stranded. I hear they are trying to find somewhere to go. It is tragic how easily corruption can ruin the lives of the innocent here.
Meanwhile, I have a lot of tomato seeds. If you live in Thailand, have decent soil and want to grow some, please let me know. I will gladly give you advice and help you if you are close enough to Bangkok. I have enough seeds to keep us all in tomatoes for a long time.