The Heirloom Tomato as Cultural Object: Investigating Taste and Space

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Abstract

This article asks how the heirloom tomato emerged as a cultural object in the late twentieth century, from something grown by individual seedsaving gardeners into a status symbol available for $7 a pound at speciality markets. This article finds that a combination of structural changes (increasing industrial farming on the one hand, and the turn to organic, local and ‘authentic’ food experiences on the other) as well as the activities of individual activist chefs and seedsavers has led to the tomatoes' emergence in a broader arena of consumption. But the article also reveals a significant spatial dimension to this apparent change in meaning. The heirloom tomato certainly emerges as a symbol of elite status in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers by the early twenty-first century – but the act of ‘distinction’ and the marketplace in which it happens are spatially demarcated and do not interfere with the access of non-elites to the object. Thus I offer an explanation of how this cultural object is created over time, but at the same time emphasise the importance of attending to location and spatiality in the study of taste, distinction and culture.

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