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Taming Tomatoes

Cabbages and Kings

By Jay Cantor

LITTLE warning flags are going up all over. Semaphoric signals of distress. In America the warning signs are being manufactured daily; artifacts which if interpreted correctly tell the whole story: The ship is going down. Not torpedoed, but sunk on purpose by the crazy crew.

They are canning tomatoes now, not the old familiar stewed tomato, but regular fresh tomatoes, cut up and sold as "Canned fresh tomato slices." The new product is advertised on television: happy families eating tomatoes in their salad, smiling as they munch the nutritious tomato slices....

Now, there is clearly no rational reason to can a tomato; in fact, tomatoes can be bought more cheaply fresh. We see in the canned tomato an example of the purely symbolic action: the benefits of canning a tomato are entirely psychic. And there must be a market for this symbolic action, for no manufacturer will produce a million articles that satisfy only his own neurotic needs. After all, this is America.

The canned tomato symbolizes the artificial split which man has created between "nature" and "culture." Man cooked meat, for example, because it stayed edible longer; the process had a rational benefit.

The ritual was extended to cooking food even when no benefit was gained--when, in fact, as in cooking carrots, benefits were lost, such as texture and nutritional value. Cooking came to embody the taboo that one must do what is controlled, is civilized; one cannot allow the "natural" or the instinctive.

Canning the tomato is the triumph of the ego, the suppression of the natural, the inexorable advance of civilization. Technology has found a way to "cook" the tomato without shriveling it to an inedible rind. One simply puts the dangerous natural tomato into a can. Magically it is civilized, it is cooked. Now take it out of the can and it is "safe" to eat the tomato.

BUT perhaps the canning of the tomato represents an even more basic need. Perhaps man must simply be continually manipulating his environment, rearranging things, transferring them from one state to another. In this way man receives feedback. It is his way of talking to himself. As we push our carts down the colorful supermarket aisles the products are whispering to us, mumbling the messages we have instructed them to say.

Like Beckett's Krapp, we are constantly talking to ourselves, trying to convince ourselves we are still alive. We feel monumentally guilty about a crime we cannot even name. And we hold ourselves under a continual sentence of disappearance. Deep within we know that the sentence is a just one. Canning a tomato is our reassurance that the sentence hasn't yet been carried out.

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