Peelomania! - Umberto Tosi

The other day, I noticed the words "STEAM PEELED" displayed on a can of tomatoes that I took from the cupboard to make a pasta sauce. I'd probably seen that label or one like it many times before, but this time it triggered a cascade of memories.

Canned tomatoes bearing that label would have signified a dream come true for a brief but frenzied period in my life fifty years ago. That's when I came down with tomato fever. For a while there, I was convinced that I was going to get rich overnight, revolutionizing California's multi-billion-dollar ag business and saving the environment in the process. 

Tomato fever took me from East to West Coast, from Boston, to California's fertile Central Valley, to Parma, Italy and on to Bejing as part of an international, industrial food processing consortium with a psych-ward nervous breakdown stopover. it's a true story that I still have trouble believing sometimes, an adventure full of sound and fury that netted little cash but the priceless treasure of my youngest daughter, along with some wild, hardhat memories in the end.  

My tomato flashback made me laugh, ruefully, while opening that can of peeled ironies. Inside was the stuff that dreams are made of, the drippings of family saga. Someday I'll grit my teeth and make good use of all this multi-generational blockbuster material, I tell myself. But not today.

Like tea leaves, a tasseomancist could have read my fortune from a can of peeled tomatoes when I was a small boy - and the fortunes of my father and his contentious brothers as well. That would have been back in the early 1940s when we lived in Boston, Massachusetts, far from any tomato fields. 

If Upton Sinclair had written a Tosi Family Epic, he would have entitled it "Tomatoes!" instead of Oil! If I ever write one of those dynastic tomes, my tongue would be planted in my cheek. The Tosi blockbuster would revolve around the lowly tomato instead of gold or diamonds, and it would take place in mid-century California instead of Frontier Texas or Czarist Russia or Victorian England. The  vicissitudes of war, politics, popular folly and public corruption - fate, that is - would play as great a role as any individual character, even though, as one of those individuals, I discounted happenings in the world around us, and took everything personally at the time.

  Flash steam peeled tomatoes
Still, the drama was there. Who needs gold rings? Tomato fever can warp the mind and galvanize greed as readily as any precious stones or metals. Most people don't know that greater fortunes have been amassed in tomato growing and processing than in oil, silver or gold in the Golden State. California produces more than 90 percent of all tomatoes processed in the United States, and 30 percent worldwide. That's 12 million tons of tomatoes peeled, canned, chopped, concentrated or otherwise rendered into sauces, ketchups, toppings and other condiments every year - part of just about every hamburger, taco, pizza or stew every American consumes. 

If I did it as a graphic novel it would be my flawed superhero origin story - and that of my four daughters - going back a long ways. Like the history of tomatoes themselves (originating in MesoAmerica and first cultivated by the Aztecs) the Tosi Tomato Tales followed a circuitous route between the Americas, the Old and New Worlds. 

Flash back 120 years: My paternal grandfather, Bologna-born, Umberto Francis Tosi, after whom I was named, became a naturalized U.S. citizen 1900 after he set up a phonograph and bicycle shop in Boston's North End. From there, Thomas Edison hired and sent him back to Europe as agent to sign musical talent for the famous inventor's global recording company. 

There he lived in Milan with his famous, opera diva wife, my grandmother, Luisa Ardizzoni, until they fled the Austrian army at the start of World War I in 1914. The couple then emigrated to Buenos Aires where my father was born. Luisa performed lead roles at Teatro Colon and Umberto ran a photograph company. The globe-trotting couple moved back to the United States in the 1920s in time to face financial ruin in the 1929 crash and ensuing Great Depression. 

Here come the tomatoes. Struggling to get back on their feet, my grandmother taught voice, while my grandfather founded Tosi Trading Company. He distributed small lots of canned tomatoes, olive oil, pasta and cheeses from Italy to little Italian markets dotting Boston and New England. He brought his sons into the business as it grew in the 1930s - including my father. The recession eased and Tosi Trading prospered, but Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 staring World War 2. That meant, as anticipated, no more imports from Mussolini's Italy.

My father went west to find products with my mother and I in tow. I was five years old. Packers in California, with its Mediterranean climate, were beginning to produce Italian-style canned tomatoes and sauces as well as olive oil. The business flourished again, this time on both coasts. 

My father was 4-F, but his younger brother Ernest joined the U.S. Army Air Corps when American entered the war in 1941, joining other uncles and cousins in uniform. War speeded the centrifugal forces separating families. Ernest served with a fighter wing North Africa and Italy, where he stayed for a time after the war, drumming up business. 

 Umberto Sr. & Luisa, 1930

Ernest returned to Boston full of new ideas - most excited about a new, Italian-designed cold industrial tomato processing machine being used by Italian canneries. Ernesto secured the U.S. rights to the cold peeler from its inventor, a University of Bologna biology professor. 

The cold peeler that came to be manufactured by an engineering firm in Parma, Italy, proved far more efficient and cleaner than the widely used, boiling lye peeling equipment still commonly utilized to peel potatoes, tomatoes and other fruits. Ermest and his brothers could replace scores of California's lye-peeling lines with the Italian cold peeler at $150,000 apiece. They would earn a small fortune doing so (given a 30 percent commission) - and gain satisfaction from bettering farming communities that had to deal with lye- and food-waste-polluted effluents from hundreds of canneries, A win-win. 

My grandfather and his older brother were skeptical. My father was neutral. The brothers escalated their argument over the tomato peeler to the white hot sibling rivalry. They broke up Tosi Trading company, went separate ways and didn't speak to each other for years.

By now it was the 1950s and the California tomato processing industry had grown prodigiously, but gone in a different direction that that in war-interrupted Italy. The Italians grew and delicious, plump, oval San Marzano Tomatoes, delicate and flavourful -- and requiring delicate handling -- starting with picking by hand. 

A racist, anti-immigration political backlash pushed California agriculture away from farm labour -- particularly from immigrant Asian and Mexican pickers.  President Dwight Eisenhower, to his shame, initiated "operation wetback" in 1954, which millions of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and Central Americans were rounded up and deported indiscriminately to remote parts of Mexico and Central America without due process, separating families, resulting in hardships and deaths in a fiasco that can only be described as mass, mindless official cruelty. (Practices mimicked in recent years by the former Trump regime. Sound Familiar?)

Filipino and other Asian farm working immigration was banned, while the spouses and children of those farm workers already here were barred from entry. Even the Bracero program that bussed thousands of Mexican labourers to California plantings and harvests every year was banned.

One teenage recollection dramatized the toxicity of anti-immigrant prejudice California on a personal scale. This occurred in the mid-1950s when my father decided to move his business from Stockton, California to San Francisco as he shifted more towards importing. That meant selling the three-bedroom tract home he owned in a nice part of Stockton where I had attended high school. He sold it directly to a recently married friend and business associate instead of through a broker, and for good reason. Our buyer was a Filipino man I remember as an occasional, cheerful dinner guest and a player in my father's friendly, floating poker game.  

We became pariahs as soon word got out in the neighbourhood. We got threatening phone calls and notes reviling us as traitors or worse, stones thrown at the house and a cross burned on our front lawn. But the deal went through anyway.

 Tomato harvester, CA
Meanwhile, California Central Valley farmers - facing a labour shortage of their own making -- speeded up mechanization -- in particular the development of mechanical picking for tomatoes. That required a new tomato hybrid developed by the University of California at Davis. It produced a tough-skilled, fibrous tomato that could stand up to big mechanical harvesters and loading in massive gondola trucks for hauling to canneries with minimal losses. 

Our Italian-built, cold-process peeling machines were no match for this tough California tomato. It left too many tomatoes half-peeled.

The anti-immigrant-necessitated mechanical tomato harvester was a huge commercial success, but with some draconian social and economic consequences -- like so many other examples of progress, largely ignored by society and governments. There were increased in productivity to be sure. Yields per acre jumped from 12-20 tons to more than 50 tons-to-the acre. The industrial harvest methods are wasteful, however, leaving 20-30 percent of the crop on the ground.

 With my father, Boston, 1941
The gargantuan mechanized tomato harvesters arguably saved the industry from the consequences of labor shortages. They became standard for 99.9 percent of processing tomatoes -- and came with major collateral costs, the most significant of which was consolidation and corporatization. 

In 1962, about 4,000 tomato farmers, employing 50,000 farm workers, were in operation across California. Just nine years later, only 600 farms remained, and 32,000 farm workers were out of a job. What had happened? As in other fields, American farming transitioned from family business to high-capital, agribusiness.

At $65,000 each, these machines were not for everyone. The profit margin required to justify them meant farmers needed a lot more land to remain commercially viable. This led to a massive 82% consolidation of the industry into just a small number of large-scale farmers.

To survive these new machines, agricultural scientists had to breed new strains of tomatoes that were harder and could withstand their picking techniques. These tomatoes tasted the same but contained  fewer vitamins and were less desirable for consumers.

Meanwhile, I grew into adulthood far from the tomato business that my father had urged me to join. I got married, had children, went to college with aspirations of being a writer, and went to work at the Los Angeles Times, where I worked my way up the editorial ladder for a dozen years. The Brothers Tosi's peelomania cooled, although their mutual bitterness lingered.

Fast forward to 1982: I had climbed rung after rung up the editorial ladder. I had worked as staff writer, then managing editor, then editor in chief at a major news paper and regional magazine, bylined articles for dozens of other periodicals, had two books published by major New York publishers, featured on nationwide TV. Then I fell off. The publishing world - like other industries in the econically unstable 1980s - reorganized and consolidated. I hit a dry patch and couldn't seem to sell my writing to anyone. I went broke fast and felt the gaping voice of someone who had worked too long to please others while neglecting to develop his personal creative inspirations. 

Enter Señor Tomate! TA-DA! Vettori-Manghi, of Parma, Italy, the food processing engineering firm that had built the freeze-peeler perfected a new and much improved industrial peeler - this one using a quick-vacuum/steam process that removed skins smoothly leaving the fruit nearly intact with a pollution-free process. The firm had proven the equipment and been installing it world wide. They contacted my father to help them sell it to the California tomato industry.

The company hired me as as its  representative and translator -- given my at least conversational fluency in Italian. Vettori-Manghi was one of the world's most advanced and successful food processing equipment engineering companies, suppliers to plants in Europe, the former Soviet Unon, the Middle East, North Africa and South America. Sure, I said. Why not? 

The company  had been formed in a merger between a food machinery and a wartime aircraft engine firm -- swords into ploughshares. Vettori-Manghi also designed other next-generation equipment, including massive, 120-ton-per-hour tomato evaporators that featured a patented, micro-polished, non-stick, stainless steel heat exchangers -- significant given the millions of pounds of tomatoes that California growers concentrate and sell in drums around the country to be reconstituted into sauces and ketchup. My father was supportive, but to his credit, advised me to moderate my wilder projections. He'd seen it all before.

 Me at the Great Wall, 1985
Our presentations seemed to go well. Before i could say "datsa-spicy-meat-a-balls," Vettori-Manghi signed me -- a rank engineering amateur-but-a-quick-study -- as its California sales representative. 
Talk about a day job! This beat driving a cab. In the next six months, pounding the highways from cannery-to-cannery, I managed to sell two 20-ton--an-hour peeling lines to a cooperative in Sacramento, and one 60-ton-per-hour evaporator to an independent packing company in Modesto, California.
I wasn't a millionaire just yet, but this was a breakthrough. I didn't bargain that the job would entail my doing a lot more than pitching equipment. Working with a team Italian-speaking mechanics from the home plant, 
I had to act as translator, company liaison and troubleshooter during the shipping, assembly, operator training and shakedown of these industrial units in time for the next harvest season, starting in late spring, 1983. Well, it got my mind off of writer's block.

All this in the face of cannery foremen and old timers clucking that this new-fangled Italian technology would never work. Overcoming many last-minute challenges, the technology did work -- and superbly, proving their efficiency and clean-enviornmental productivity.. I expected that this would lead to my getting rich selling dozens more units in the coming seasons. I'd make my fortune, buy an alpine lodge near Lake Tahoe and write the great American novel undistracted by financial desperation. My kids would all have generous college funds and other nice stuff.

That March, I looked up when the cargo ship bearing the tomato machines' assembly would sail through the Golden Gate from Genoa, Italy and dock at Port of Oakland. I hiked from my flat in San Francisco to a Land's End Trail vantage point from where I could see ships entering from the Pacific Ocean. I whooped when I spotted the Italian cargo carrier making the turn into the Bay. "I'm watching my ship come in!" I said to myself

"Tell me about the rabbits, George." With my supposed literary bent I should have remembered what happens to the best laid plans Of Mice and Men, or at least the experience of my tomato-fortune-seeking uncles. The Reagan recession of 1983 struck hard in California. The bigger ag-producers gobbled up what remained of the smaller and medium-sized operators during the next two years. The survivors had their hands full cannibalizing equipment from plants they had absorbed and closed down. Nobody was buying any new equipment. Everybody was leveraged up to their ears, including me as I ran through my commissions and plunged into debt to survive what I saw as a rough patch and not a sign reading :"EXIT!" 

Drifting from depression into probable grandiosity, this amateur technology tycoon, teamed up with a consortium offering a wider vision. I convinced a California engineering group to incorporate Vettori-Manghi equipment into their design and bidding to build a high-yield, turn-key tomato processing plant in the People's Republic of China. 

The Chinese produced practically no commercial tomato products at that time, but could see that the tasty, adaptable red fruit was fast being adopted as the basis for condiments of every variety worldwide. Americans don't realize the immense scope and variety of climates, soils and productivity in modern-day China. This could be a Plan B that superseded Plan A, I thought. I joined the delegation to Bejing making presentations to a dozen new government-backed agricultural enterprises seeing tomatoes as an ideal export crop to earn foreign dollars. 

I was on the right track, but this wasn't going to happen overnight. One needed capital that I didn't have to stay in the game. I looked in the mirror upon my return - seriously jet lagged and depressed. What am I doing? I asked myself. I needed to join Peelomaniacs Annonymous! 

I went back to writing - wringing a living out of freelance writing - including business and technology - as regained my footing. That was a long time ago. I've move on, finally writing the fiction I've always wanted to create in my dotage these days. I took up running -- six miles a day -- as a meditative therapy. I did gain something great from my Peelomaniacal days in the Central Valley. I met and later married the mother of my youngest daughter, Zoë, now a 31-year-old doctor of cognitive science researcher in the San Francisco Bay Area and a joy to our family.

.At last,now in 2021, I hear that a limited number of tomato processing companies have finally switched to vacuum-steam peeling in recent years using improved equipment, taking advantage the incentive provided by savings on waste-water purification premiums that many districts have taken to charging canners. China, meanwhile, has gone from nearly zero to being the world's largest producer of ever expanding process tomato products. As I've learned more than once, there is little profit in being too far ahead of any given curve. 


Umberto Tosi's books include, The Phantom Eye, Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago.


Enjoy my latest Hollywood noir detective thriller: The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery) newly released in paperback and ebook by Light Fantastic Publishing.
 "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen.

"... reminds me of Chandler's The Little Sister, and The Big Sleep of course." - Actor playwright Gary Houston.





Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Umberto - you've made me smile,mutter 'ouch!' and my mouth water with this piece of your history. Some journey! Huge respect for inventiveness and persistence in the face of World Idiocy - but I'm so glad that crreative writing won over tomatoes in the end!
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Sandra. The kind praise of a respected colleague like yourself makes all the rotten tomatoes worth it. :D
Aliciasammons said…
The perpetual bittersweet saga of pursuing the American Dream— told with historical clarity, personal insight, and humor born from wisdom. Thoroughly enjoyable reading!
Sarah said…
You had me hooked at "steam peeled" as I remembered my grandad holding a tomato on a fork over boiling water to release the skin and peel a tomato for his tea.
By "Peelomaniacs Annonymous" I was laughing out loud. What an adventurous life you have led!
Reb MacRath said…
Umberto scores again with a delightful epic on tomatoes!

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