On Saturday, I walked a mile from my Brooklyn apartment to a farmers’ market with a clarity of purpose that felt ordained by the heavens. I didn’t really have time for the errand, or a solid idea of how I would use its spoils, but I was compelled onto the sidewalk for a very specific task. It’s tomato season, and I was a woman in want of tomatoes.
I don’t know when tomatoes became an object of such obsession for me, but they seem to have grown similarly important to nearly everyone I know. Tomatoes are in season every summer, but this year the internet has turned tomato season into Tomato Season. Both food media and regular people have latched onto the idea with a fervor that feels more wild-eyed and ubiquitous than in previous years. I hiked to the farmers’ market on a hot, busy day because friends on Instagram and Twitter had posted so many photos of its impossible bounty—the straw that broke the camel’s back, after two weeks of watching them share recipes for tomato sandwiches and panzanellas and tomato-ricotta tarts.
By this month’s standards, a celebration of late-summer produce is an uncharacteristically gentle development online. On the same morning I decided I couldn’t go on living without enough tomatoes to last me the week, news broke that Jeffrey Epstein, the sex offender awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking, had died by apparent suicide in jail, setting off a Rube Goldberg machine of conspiracies about who might be responsible. That news piled on top of a summer in which thousands of migrant children have been held in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions at detention centers at the southern U.S. border and dozens of Americans have been murdered in a rash of mass shootings.
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.
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.
Maybe this tomato season has turned into Tomato Season because everything else can seem so intolerable, or because it’s so inextricably tied to a few particular weeks in an era when the passage of time can seem so unmoored from the human experience of it. The United States is knee-deep in an acrimonious presidential campaign that still contains two dozen participants, and it won’t be resolved until more than a year from now. White-supremacist violence is on the rise, and the technology companies whose products have helped disseminate the ideology seem ill-equipped or disinclined to stop it.
Tomatoes are proof that the world still works in some capacity, at least for now. They still grow. Markets sell them. A tomato with a slick of mayonnaise on soft white bread won’t solve anything, but for the next few weeks, it will taste great. Of course it will. It’s tomato season.