What Is a Good Tomato? A Case of
Valuing in Practice
Frank Heuts and Annemarie Mol
As a contribution to the eld of valuation studies this article lays out a
number of lessons that follow from an exploratory inquiry into ‘good
tomatoes’. We held interviews with tomato experts (developers, growers,
sellers, processors, professional cooks and so-called consumers) in the
Netherlands and analysed the transcriptions carefully. Grouping our
informants’ concerns with tomatoes into clusters, we differentiate between ve
registers of valuing. These have to do with money, handling, historical time,
what it is to be natural, and sensual appeal. There are tensions between and
within these registers, that lead to clashes and compromises. Accordingly,
valuing tomatoes does not t into inclusive formal schemes. Neither is it
simply a matter of making judgements. Our informants told us how they
know whether a tomato is good, but also revealed what they do to make
tomatoes good. Their valuing includes activities such as pruning tomato plants
and preparing tomato dishes. But if such activities are meant to make
tomatoes good, success is never guaranteed. This prompts us to import the
notion of care. Care does not offer control, but involves sustained and
respectful tinkering towards improvement. Which is not to say in the end the
tomatoes our informants care for are good. In the end these tomatoes get
eaten. And while eating performs tomatoes as ‘good to eat’, it also nishes
them off. Valuing may lead on to destruction. An important lesson for
valuation studies indeed.
Key words: valuation; valuing; practice; performativity; eating; food; care;
Valuation Studies 1(2) 2013: 125–146
Frank Heuts, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Amsterdam,
the Netherlands, f.heuts[at]gmail.com
Annemarie Mol, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of
Amsterdam, the Netherlands, a.mol[at]uva.nl
© 2013 Frank Heuts and Annemarie Mol. Photo from iStockphoto.
LiU Electronic Press, DOI 10.3384/vs.2001-5992.1312125
This article starts from the question: ‘What is a good tomato?’
However, it is not our aim to provide you with a conclusive answer to
that question. It would have been possible to try. We might have
gathered the views of a variety of experts and added these together to
create an overall judgement. These are the four (or the twenty-seven)
criteria that tomatoes should meet in order for them to deserve the
predicate ‘good’. If that is the kind of lesson you are looking for, this
article will disappoint you. But this does not mean that we are out to
critique the activity of valuing tomatoes and to uncover what hides
behind it—be it nancial interests, political power, or the desire to
stand out and distinguish oneself. Instead, we are curious about
valuing itself: what kind of activity is this? What emerges in practices
where the ‘goodness’ of gures such as ‘tomatoes’ is at stake? In short,
by exploring what ‘good tomatoes’ might be, we hope to contribute to
the theoretical repertoire of the young interdisciplinary eld of
valuation studies, where concerns with ‘values’ that were earlier
dispersed are being drawn together.
Prominent among the topics addressed in valuation studies are the
ways in which monetary value is established and tied up with
qualications of whatever it is that money can buy.
But money and
126 Valuation Studies
The possibilities for engaging in a social science focussed on objects, here tomatoes,
owes a lot to studies of ‘the social life of things’ (Appadurai 1986). At the same time,
it has been fuelled by the social studies of science and technology, where ‘things’ that
form the object of science and/or intertwine with technology in other ways, are
followed—and where, accordingly, ‘the object’ got centred and decentred at the same
time (Law 2002). For the connection between things and moralities, see e.g. Myers
It was actually only after we were exploring valuing for some time, that we realised
that this particular term tends to be primarily used in the context of economic values
(see e.g. Greaber 2002). We decided to hold on to this term when we found that
‘valuation studies’ is seeking to engage with a wide range of ‘modes of valuing’ (see
Helgesson and Muniesa 2013). Our particular way of working is inspired by that of
a variety of French pragmatists. See e.g. Thévenot 2001; Méadel and Rabeharisoa
2001; Hennion 2004; Latour 2005.
markets are not the only contexts where valuing is a prominent
activity. For instance, cultural sociologists are busy tackling how
values are related to what they call taste; philosophers keep insisting
on the relevance of normativity while separating this out into kinds;
science and technology scholars wonder how the study of goods and
bads in practice can best be added to the study of objects and subjects
in practice; researchers of care analyse the pertinence of health, welfare
and other goals locally cast as improvement; while in anthropological
work embodied appreciations are being explored.
background of these varied literatures we sought to think through
‘valuing’ by engaging in an exploratory study of a telling case. For
crafting a rich theoretical repertoire, or so we contend, does not work
by laying out solid abstracting generalisations, but rather by adding
together ever shifting cases and learning from their specicities. The
case of ‘good tomatoes’ is neither exotic, nor politically hot. To us that
was part of its attraction: mundane cases tend to offer a researcher the
license to explore freely while despite, or maybe because of, their
mundanity, they may generate surprising lessons.
As we wanted to explore what a ‘good tomato’ might be, we
sought informants in the know. But who is an expert on ‘good
tomatoes’? In the Netherlands, where we did our research, there are
many. The country is a hot spot for tomato breeding, growing, trading
and processing, while tomatoes are also a popular ingredient of daily
Dutch cuisine. With some effort, FH, who did the interviews, managed
to talk with people from all these worlds: developers, growers, sellers,
processors, professional cooks and so-called consumers (who talked
about buying, preparing, as well as eating tomatoes). In total FH taped
and fully transcribed thirteen interviews.
That we call all interviewees
‘experts’ signals that we were not invested in differentiating between
groups of people, those in the know, experts, and those without
specialised insights, so called lay people. Instead, we wanted to explore
different ways of valuing, relevant to different practices. We took our
informants to be experts in relation to the practices that they were
routinely involved in it, be it professionally or privately. An additional
advantage of staging our informants as experts was that it allowed us,
as researchers, to curiously analyse our materials without having to
What Is a Good Tomato? 127
See, for our earlier struggles with the topic of taste Mol 2011; Mann et al. 2011; of
philosophy Mol 2008b; of combining the study of ontology with that of normativity
Mol 2012; and of appreciation Mol, forthcoming.
All interviews were held in Dutch and literally transcribed (if not to the standards
of conversation analysis as that was not needed for our purposes). For the sake of
this English language article, we translate just the quotes we use. In this translation,
even if we have tried hard to bring across the soul of what is said, subtleties, nuances
and things that resonate in the choice of words, are inevitably lost.
The aim of the interviews was to learn about valuing tomatoes in
practice. Ideally, we would have wanted to do eldwork and follow
our informants in all their tomato related activities. This, however,
wasn’t easy to achieve in our practice. We had little time, wanted to
know about diverse practices, and found that potential informants
were not keen to be shadowed, either because this sounded intrusive to
them, or because they did not want to negotiate it with their bosses. As
our purposes were exploratory, interviewing proved a helpful enough
proxy. We invited informants to talk as if they were their own
ethnographers—or rather (as the object of conversation was not a tribe
but a practice) their own praxiographers.
Here the art is to
persistently ask questions about the specicities of activities that
informants tend to take for granted. This incites them to not get stuck
in relating their opinions, but to take a fresh look at their own
practices. Our informants were generous with their expertise and on
average the interviews lasted for about an hour. Once we had the rich
and heartfelt stories on printouts in front of us, it was tempting to
write up the results in the form of ‘tomato life worlds’. For that would
have been a good humanist way to go, to describe ‘worlds’ with
human beings in their centre. Different worlds, as the world of a
tomato grower is not quite that of a tomato eater, while the trials and
tribulations of sellers differ from those of seed developers. However,
we had set out to study not groups of people, but practices of valuing.
And as we kept foregrounding these, other ways to order our materials
A rst one was to differentiate between various axes along which
goods and bads get mapped. In making these axes we were, in a rst
instance, inspired by the differentiation that Boltanski and Thévenot
made in the eighties between ‘economies of worth’.
This work moved
128 Valuation Studies
For a more extensive introduction of this method, see Mol 2002.
If we would have laid out the ‘worlds’ as differing between social groups, as a
symbolic interactionist would, we might have wondered about the way such worlds
relate, clash and share ‘the tomato’ as a so called ‘boundary object’ (cf. Star and
Griesemer 1989). This we do not do. However, like symbolic interactionism, we
investigate valuing as something our informants do rather than in a more
structuralist way as something caught in or framed by a ‘culture’. See for inspiring
examples of the latter the contributions to Watson and Caldwell 2005.
For the English translation, see Boltanski and Thévenot 2006. Their économies are
inspired by the classics of Western philosophy as well as the rich and inspiring case
studies of their research collaborators, that ranged from discussions in small town
banks about giving or not giving out loans, to the question whether or not
camembert remains authentic when it is safeguarded in a fridge. See Boltanski and
Thévenot 1989. One of our reviewers wondered why we quote Boltanski and
Thévenot since our approach has deviated so much from theirs. We hope that
making the shifts explicit helps readers to better situate what we are after. There is
obviously a lot of other work that is inspired by and then departs from the Boltanski
and Thévenot line. See also Dodier 2012.
from a philosophy invested in judgements and a sociology of critique,
to the exploration of the ways in which ordinary people (‘the actors’)
go about justifying their acts by evaluating them against one or more
out of seven scales, called ‘economies of worth’. As we did not explore
the justication of acts (against the background of political
philosophy), but the valuing of tomatoes (as a contribution to
valuation studies), we allowed our theoretical tools to rapidly drift.
Hence, we shifted from talking about ‘worth’ (a quality) to
foregrounding ‘valuing’ (an activity) and from ‘economies’ (that come
with a single gradient each) to ‘registers’ (that indicate a shared
relevance, while what is or isn’t good in relation to this relevance may
differ from one situation to another). We drew the ‘registers of
valuing’ that we came to disentangle from our materials, where they
appeared neither closed off nor incompatible, but showed overlaps as
well as internal tensions. As making ever more divisions in the hope of
reaching purity proved to be futile, we took the complexity that
ensued not as an analytical aw, but as an empirical fact about the
valuing of ‘good tomatoes’.
That there are tensions within and
between the registers of valuing tomatoes implies that as analysts we
do not have to spend a lot of effort on taking a critical distance from
our materials so as to avoid getting trapped in apparent self-evidences.
As different registers of valuing clash, they rob each other of any
potential self-evidence. They instantiate each other’s criticism.
Valuing tomatoes is not just complex; it is also performative.
Recently Vatin has argued that valuation studies should not just study
evaluation, the activity of classifying things as either valuable or not,
but also valorising, the activity of making things (more) valuable.
materials back this up. As we asked our informants about ‘good
tomatoes’ they did not just tell stories about how one might know
which tomato is better or worse, but they also related what one might
do to make a tomato better rather than worse. But while Vatin, in
conversation with economic theories, locates evaluation in the market
and valorising in the production process, in the case of good tomatoes
both activities (as we will show below) are relevant all the way
What Is a Good Tomato? 129
For the argument that social science research should not hide the complexity of
even messiness of the world, but nd ways of bringing it out, see Law 2004.
See Vatin 2013. Vatin relates his argument to the possibilities offered by the French
language where évaluer and valoriser are more obviously different while in the
English valuation these activities seem to merge; but also to the relation between
economics and the sociology of economy invested in studying market relations and
the sociology of work invested in studying work. In the domain of food studies there
are related separations, but there attending to production implies including
agriculture, while studies of consumption are not so much invested in price as in
‘food cultures’. In that context the argument that the production and the
consumption best be analysed together has been variously made for quite a while, see
e.g. Whatmore 2002.
through. Stronger still, they are hard to separate out. The ‘assessment’
part and the ‘improvement’ part of dealing with tomatoes slide over
into each other. Hence, we do not follow Vatin in his suggestion to use
two different terms for these activities, evaluation and valorising.
Instead we stick to a single one: valuing. This gerund seems best suited
for exploring varied ways of performing ‘good tomatoes’, from
assessing and appreciating, to adapting and improving. ‘Valuing’ also
stresses that ‘valuation’ is active, but beware, liberal notions of ‘action’
do not t. For one, our informants do not act alone but in conjunction
with lots of materials (from water to bumble bees to trucks to
vinegar). And second, however much these clustered socio-material
gures seek to make tomatoes good, success is never guaranteed.
Which is why we come to mobilise the term care. Caring is an activity
in which valuing is implied—both caring about and caring for have a
‘good’ at their horizon. At the same time caring indicates efforts that
are ongoing, adaptive, tinkering and open ended. But before we give
all our conclusions away, let us look at the case of good tomatoes.
Registers of Valuing
A rst register relevant to valuing tomatoes is a monetary register, that
has to do with nancial costs. Most of the tomatoes that our
informants talked about gure in market transactions, in which
tomatoes move in one direction and money in the other. But money is
even relevant to the amateur grower who neither sells nor buys his
tomatoes: “It is a hobby. What with the plot, the seeds, the fertilizer
and all, I doubt whether, as it is, I pay less than we would if we bought
our tomatoes on the market. And then I don’t even count my time.”
Stressing that in one’s own particular case money is not a decisive
value still evokes its relevance. And relevant it is, money. It informs
ever so many dealings with tomatoes. A grower: “You want to
discharge a minimal amount of fertilizer, for fertilizer costs money and
you do not want to ush that into your waste water. Sometimes you
see a number going up, like sodium. Then you have to act on it.” But
sometimes your own actions do not count for much. A grower:
“Poland was too wet this year, Spain and Italy had a cold spring. That,
when it comes to it, is what we thrive on.” The fact that tomato
markets extend across considerable geographical distances means that
growers in the Netherlands earn more when the weather is bad in
Poland, Spain and Italy. It also means that industrial processors will
buy their tomatoes wherever the price is low. Here is one of them:
“The Dutch ones, in boxes or in small containers, you pay two euros
for those in the supermarket. Which means that when they leave the
farm they are roughly one euro a kilo. For us that is way too much.
We buy tomatoes grown in large elds, harvested with machines. And
those are, what, some ten cents a kilo.” Large Mediterranean elds,
with no need for heating, yield cheap tomatoes. At the buying end of a
130 Valuation Studies
transaction this is a good thing, cheap. Here is a consumer: “When
there is a discount. I buy tomatoes when there is a discount.” Thus,
within the money register the good is not equivocal. ‘Cheap’ and
‘expensive’ are clashing goods. However, they both underscore the
relevance of money.
A second register of valuing tomatoes has to do with handling
them. One of the crucial concerns here is that of fragility. Fresh
tomatoes are easily crushed and after a certain time, they perish. The
spreadsheets of the market have no space for material specicities, nor
for the passing of time, but when it comes to handling tomatoes, both
are crucial. An industrial processor: “So they are harvested and then
they go to the factory in big trucks. Ideally within eight hours. But,
even if you are in a hurry, you should not pile up a tomato too high.
Imagine what happens. If it is too high, your pile collapses.” Here, a
good tomato is rm, able to withstand transportation, if only its limits
are respected. But even rm tomatoes go off in the end. Here the
factory comes in. In factories tomatoes are processed and thus
preserved. By cooking them up to a paste or a sauce, by tinning or
bottling them, tomatoes that might otherwise quickly rot, are kept for
future use. When it comes to handling fresh tomatoes, meanwhile, it is
not just their rmness that matters. In kitchen practices other qualities
are relevant as well. A cook: “A juicy tomato—that’s nice. For a salad
you want a juicy tomato. But not on bread, you don’t, for bread easily
gets soaked.” Developers have taken this up as a challenge: how to
avoid soaked bread and yet consume tomatoes? As one of them
explains: “We have developed a tomato that is suited to being cut, the
Intense tomato. This is a niche product. It is meant to be used in the
sandwich industry, in catering. The Intense tomato won’t lose its juice
when you cut it.” Thus, within this register the good again comes in
varieties. But they all have to do with what makes a tomato good to
In a third register, valuing proceeds by inserting tomatoes in
historical time. Here it may be the past that is celebrated. A consumer:
“When I was a kid. The way tomatoes tasted back then! Those were
real tomatoes.” In some places, notably in North America, heirloom
tomatoes, so called ‘old races’, are being gloried. The literature offers
plenty of quotes that signal this nostalgia: “Heirlooms are like
motherhood and apple pie. You can’t say anything bad about them.
They’re a status symbol.”
However, such reverence for the past
What Is a Good Tomato? 131
This is a quote of the famous US tomato expert Kanti Rawal and we found it in a
book that is not about the good, but about the perfect tomato. See Allen 2010, 69.
What we particularly like about this quote is that, by speaking about a ‘status
symbol’, it is the developer who picks up on and mobilises a critical sociological
repertoire. But mind you, he mobilises it to be critical, too, and in his own way: they
may provide status, heirlooms, but there is still something left to develop and
seems to be rare among tomato experts in the Netherlands. While
some older eaters glorify the tomatoes of their youth, our materials
contain more instances where people take pride in breaking with the
past, in being innovative.
In this context the relevant ‘past’ is a fairly
recent one, the nineteen eighties and early nineties, a time in which, as
one of the growers put it, “we did not sufciently attend to quality”.
Famously, at some point during that period, the Germans had started
to complain that the Dutch tomatoes that they imported were shiny
and rm, but tasteless. A grower: “As the Germans started to call them
‘water bombs’, we felt we had to act. So with some colleagues we
decided to do things differently. We talked to seed developers, we
stopped using pesticides, we ne-tuned nutrients. We branded them,
too, we called them Tasty Tom. They are more expensive, our Tasty
Tom, but we found a market for them.” Such innovative zeal is more
widely celebrated. Another grower: “Don’t think of farms as stagnant,
horticulture is developing really fast. We have this ultramodern
packaging machine. And now we are building a climate controlled
glasshouse.” The innovative experiments may include the re-use of
elements from the tradition. The rst grower again: “We use
bumblebees for fertilisation, and then we had to cut the pesticides
because they make the bumblebees die off too quickly. So now we
experiment with natural ways to discourage bugs.” But in one way or
another in this register good tomatoes are put on a time line. The
present is differentiated from the past. A consumer: “For me, at rst,
well, tomatoes were just that, tomatoes. I actually used quite a lot of
them, without thinking much about it. But since a few years now, I
buy these smaller ones, on bunches, in a small plastic tray. Tasty Tom.
They have a lot more taste. I go for those, now, I try to avoid the
A fourth register of valuing mobilised by the experts whom we
interviewed is that of naturalness. Here things are good if they have
not been interfered with. Even (or maybe especially?) the expert who
works in the huge ketchup and sauce company that thrives on
processing tomatoes, mobilises this register. He hands us an
advertisement leaet in which the company proudly underscores the
‘goodness’ of its wares with the slogan ‘Grown, not made’. A short
publicity lm that shows how the tomatoes that go into Heinz ketchup
132 Valuation Studies
Now that we think of it, many people in the Netherlands wouldn’t have much
trouble with saying bad things about motherhood and/or apple pie either. To be
explored! See also, for the triumphs and tribulations of writing in English about
Dutch eld work, and questions to do with valuing and language, Mol, forthcoming;
and Kuipers 2006.
One may learn from Gomart and Hennion (1999) that the ability to discern which
tomatoes have a good taste is not obvious but depends on training and dedication.
Theirs was a breakthrough study into the activities required for ‘passionate
attachment’. See also Hennion 2001, 2007.
are being grown has the same title. The suggestion is that what we see
here is not an industrial but a biological endeavour. Tomatoes are not
products; they are natural. It is quite an achievement of the Heinz
marketing department that it manages to downplay the industrial
activities necessary to grow and process tomatoes on a multinational
scale. The informed bet is most likely that out there, in the public, the
natural is widely celebrated. Some of our informants join in with that
celebration. Here’s a professional cook: “Look, if they [the growers]
use pesticides and all, that bothers me. Then I won’t buy there. I don’t
want them to interfere too much.” But this is not to say that
naturalness reigns supreme. Or even that, beyond advertisements, it
may ever be achieved. A grower: “Organic tomatoes, well, of course
that is a belief. Some aspects are good, they are good for the
environment, they are rewarding on the market. But, you know, if
consumers are being told, in the newspaper and all, that organic
agriculture doesn’t use any chemicals, what can I say? That is simply
The fth and nal register of valuing that we draw out here is that
of the sensual. Here, tomatoes are good if they are compelling to the
senses. But which senses to seduce? First there are visual clues. A
consumer: “Do they look good? Is their colour good, are they red? But
also, do they have no mould, no weak and soft spots?” An attractive
appearance may be pleasant in and of itself—for instance, used in a
salad, a tomato should ‘look good’. But appearance may also point to
something else: a tomato with soft spots is on the verge of going off
and a tomato with mould has already done so. Neither of these will
taste good. Thus, visual signs may be used as an index of avour and
texture. But the signifying links are not always to be trusted. This was
the problem with the ‘waterbombs’, they looked good, but they did
not taste good. That visual signs may ‘betray’ those who look out for
avour is a contentious point, a crucial friction within the sensual
register. A cook: “Some tomatoes have a tough skin. They may look
good, but this is because they are hard, which is because they contain
too much water. And then when you eat them, you get disappointed.
They taste of nothing.” So there may be tensions. Looks or taste. Smell
or bite. The ideal is for a tomato to be appealing to all the senses at the
same time. A developer: “Well, in the end, in one way or another, you
want a tomato that is round, red, looks good and has a great taste.”
What Is a Good Tomato? 133
Anthropological studies on tasting often start out by saying that in ‘the West’ the
eye is privileged among the senses, while ‘elsewhere’ smell or taste gets more
attention (see e.g. Howes 1991). Others insist that in the way the body appreciates,
the input from various sense organs ows over into each other; that humans are
‘multisensorial’. What is striking in our tomato-materials, however, is how many
different things people tell about the relation between what may be seen and what
may be tasted. For a play on and with the senses—notably those of touch and taste—
see Mann et al. 2011.
These ve registers do not simply jump from our materials. Instead,
through careful analysis we have distilled them, like a chemist distils
chemical components from a mixture. We used simple distillation
techniques: if ‘money’ was mentioned in our materials a few times, we
started using a colour pencil to colour all sentences with an allusions
to money with a single colour. And if money was red, handling
became blue, historical time pink, naturalness green and allusions to
the senses yellow.
This technique allowed us to rst assemble
sentences that mobilise just a single register of valuing. So far we
presented you with such single-coloured ones. However, they formed
only a small part of our materials. More often sentences ended up
having a few colours as various registers were used in combination.
This begged the question how the registers relate. Do they add
together, are there situations in which tomatoes easily combine
different kinds of goodness? This happens. But sometimes, different
registers of valuing pull and push in different directions. Then one
register may be prioritised over the others, or a compromise may be
crafted. Compromises between different kinds of goodness, in their
turn, come in variants. Here, rather than seeking to present you with a
comprehensive overview, we will offer you an open-ended list of
The most striking tension between registers, mentioned time and
again, is that between monetary and sensual valuing. A grower:
“People may say they want quality but what are they willing to pay?”
The implied answer is: not a lot. That this calls for compromise is
something our informants mention in so many words. Another
grower: “Taste is not counted by the kilo, but we are paid by the kilo.
So you have to compromise and opt for a stock with a reasonable
taste, that is still good when it comes to kilos.” Consumers who buy
and eat tomatoes also make compromises between money and taste.
Then they buy something that is ‘a bit expensive’, but not ‘excessively
so’, so as to eat something that may not be ‘stunning’ but is ‘good
enough’. But looking for the ‘in between’ is not the only way of
seeking a compromise. It is also possible to shift from one register to
another according to the circumstances. As a consumer puts it: “If I
put a tomato in my pasta sauce, I tend to buy a cheap one, because it
disappears into a pan anyway. But if, for instance, if I make a salad,
then I buy a beautifully red one, preferably one that looks tasty. Then I
134 Valuation Studies
In a rst round we used more colours, but those that appeared only rarely were
later left aside. It also took us some time to decide to group ‘the senses’ together,
rather than using either a term like ‘quality’ or splitting between looks and taste. For
other purposes other ways of clustering might obviously make more sense.
For an inspiring exploration of the ‘complexity’ implied in another case, that of
valuing a road planned in the Pyrenees, see Thévenot 2002a.
really enjoy that, that its looks are so appealing.” Here in one context,
that of making sauce, money wins while in the other, making salad,
sensual qualities count for most and tomatoes have to look tasty. But
while the tension between costs and sensual qualities may be solved by
a compromise (an in between) or distributed over situations (here this,
there the other), sometimes one value overrules the other. Here is a
consumer talking about the previously mentioned Tasty Tom: “Yes, I
know them. I had them a few times when eating with a friend. They
are very tasty. Really very tasty. But I never buy them myself. I think
they are too expensive.”
Sensual qualities may also be in tension with ease of handling. A
good example here is the use of fridges or cooling trucks. It is possible
to protect tomatoes and transport them cooled down, in the hope that
in this way they do not perish so quickly. A seller explains that ‘in the
old days’, when tomatoes were hard and had a lower sugar content,
this wasn’t such a bad idea. But now it is. “You want to save them at a
moderate temperature. Ideal is sixteen degrees. In a fridge tomatoes do
not rot, but they go sour. The taste really deteriorates.” One of the
professional cooks we talked with is vehement about this. He buys his
tomatoes directly from trusted organic growers, driving up from his
city restaurant to their farms just to avoid all cooling. “I have a
greengrocer who delivers right here, to my door. But he carries all his
vegetables cooled. And for some products this is ne, but, let me tell
you, a cooled tomato is a disgrace. If we have inspectors coming in,
when they see a tomato that hasn’t been cooled, they want to taste it.
Why? Because they don’t know any more what it is to eat uncooled
tomatoes.” However erce this particular expert may be, many others
have no inkling. A consumer tells that she saves her tomatoes in the
fridge. Why? The very question surprises here. “Why I put them in the
fridge? I guess because that’s what my mother did. Is it bad?” When
the interviewer reveals that saving tomatoes in a fridge might be bad
for their taste, she looks astonished. In practice, then, the tension
between cool ease of handling and warm care for tasting, hardly leads
to compromises. Instead, in some places cooling is a matter of course.
While elsewhere it gets rejected as a disgrace.
What Is a Good Tomato? 135
As this kind of consumer is widespread, growers have so far not been able to
establish an ‘economy of qualities’ (Callon, Méadel, and Rabeharisoa 2002) where a
higher price is accepted for higher quality, in connection with suitable, shared
techniques for recognising the relevant ‘qualities’.
Interestingly, among the case studies that helped to inspire Boltanski and
Thévenot, there is one that is about the question of the tension between quality and
fridges as well. It regards camembert and the question whether this may still be
called ‘traditional’’ when it is put in a fridge to last longer (Boisard and Letablier
The sensual quality of tastiness may also either go together or clash
with the good of being natural. In some places tomatoes from what is
called ‘mechanical production sites’ are discarded because they lack
both taste and naturalness. A high end cook: “Some tomatoes are mass
produced, on a scale that is gigantic. Go to Malaga, you will nd
gigantic farms run by Dutch owners, tomato plantations. And they
produce for [names of down-market supermarkets]. Very interesting if
you want to see something mechanical. Bonkers. No taste whatsoever.
Just inedible.” But this is not to say that what gets positively valued in
the register of naturalness and what comes out as good in a sensual
register always go together. There may also be a clash. A grower: “The
requirement for organic is: do not use potassium. But if you add
potassium, tomatoes stay smaller. The sugar content goes up. Smaller
tomatoes just taste better. For all kinds of reasons, organically grown
veggies often taste great, but when it comes to tomatoes, they just do
not. Ruling out potassium is a sad mistake.” Thus, here we hit upon
an irredeemable tension. A tomato that is ‘natural’ is not as ‘tasty’ as
one that has been supplied with potassium, while a ‘sweet’ one, that is
tasty thanks to the addition of potassium, is—under the current
regulatory regime—not ‘natural’.
In the practices that our informants talk about, valuing is not a matter
of casting judgements after the facts. Instead, it is part and parcel of a
variety of activities that experts engage in to care for their tomatoes.
We probed for this. At some point during his interviews FH would
ask, ‘If I would have to do your job [run your household] next week
what should I do?’
In this way we learned a lot about activities
meant to achieve good tomatoes. For the qualities of tomatoes are not
given, they may be tinkered with. A cook: “With a bad product, if you
handle it with love, you may still improve that product.” That
qualities are not xed characteristics of the object qualied does not
imply that they depend on the eyes of the beholder. Instead they rather
depend on the active contributions of the experts, be they developers,
growers, processers, buyers, cooks or eaters. There is a lot to be done.
Growing tomatoes is an obvious case in point: it involves all but
136 Valuation Studies
In this sense tomato experts resemble people involved in health care, who,
likewise, are not primarily invested in judging, but rather seek to improve a situation
—whatever ‘improve’ may locally mean—see e.g. Struhkamp, Mol, and Swierstra
2009. Shifting from health care to tomato care helps to strengthen an understanding
of care as not so much a noun that designates a (social) domain, but rather a verb
that signals an range of activities. See also Mol 2008a and the contributions to Mol,
Moser, and Pols 2010. There is a resonance here as well with the notion ‘matters of
concern’, see Latour 2004.
Telling others what they should/might do to acquire something that ‘good’, is also
a rich textual genre—in case of growing, processing tomatoes, see e.g. Gould 1992.
endless work. There is pruning. “The bunches, these we cut down to
six tomatoes. If you do nothing you may get eight, nine, ten tomatoes.
We prune all of them down to six, then you get good quality.” There
is watering. “We put the plant in a drain, forty centimetres above the
ground. You may water to a schedule, or adapt to how much light
there is, or use a balance for if a plant evaporates a lot it loses weight,
so you may add water according to weight loss.” There is the
protection against parasites. “We have a biological way of countering
bugs. As white ies deposit their eggs in the plant, we add ichneumon.
These deposit their eggs in the eggs of the white ies, so that what
comes out of such an egg is not a white y, but an ichneumon.” And
so on, the list could easily be extended.
As they work with their tomatoes our informants seek to make
them good. Thus valuing does not just have to do with the question
how to appreciate reality as it is, but also with the question what is
appropriate to do to improve things. Take processing. In a register
where naturalness is celebrated, cooking, condensing and conserving
do not qualify as improvements, as they ‘go against nature’. However,
in a monetary register processing not only suits producers (who may
earn a lot of money on this market) but also consumers (who tend to
pay less for canned tomatoes than for similar amounts of fresh ones).
In the register of handling, processing entails an improvement again as
well, as it keeps tomatoes edible—still good to eat—long after the
moment when, left to their own devices, they would have rotted.
Processing may also make tomatoes easier to handle for a cook in an
everyday kitchen, where opening a can and pouring the contents into a
soup is a lot less work than peeling. Here is one of them: “To take the
skin of a tomato, that’s not my favourite chore. It’s a nasty work,
really. I only do it very rarely, you know. But, well, if I make a soup,
this is a problem. For soup is simply not nice with wisps of skin in it.
Argh. So then I peel. Or I cheat and use a can.” The potential
disadvantage, in the kitchen, of using a can, lies in the register of the
senses. Soup from canned tomatoes may be less enticing than soup
from freshly peeled ones. But it doesn’t need to be. “When I make
soup I use lots of fresh tomatoes. But then I add a can of tomato paste.
There is so much taste in any single one of them!”
Valuing tomatoes, then, is embedded in activities that have other
names—growing, cooking, eating, etc. And compromises between
clashing values are not so much found (argumentatively) as well as
What Is a Good Tomato? 137
The list of the work involved would also get a lot longer if more experts would be
interviewed, such as those who do the manual work (without also being in charge)
on elds, in warehouses or in factories. That we have not included such informants is
among the many limits of the present study; but see e.g. Barndt 2002. Another one is
that we conned our investigations to conversations with informants in the
Netherlands while tomatoes travel widely—and what they are or what is good or
bad about them, varies along the way. See for this e.g. Rosset, Rice, and Watts 1999.
crafted (materially). They depend on the practical possibilities of
attuning one’s work to different kinds of good at the same time. Take
the industrial processor involved in making ketchup. It hopes for
tomatoes that are easy to handle in the production phase (withstand
mechanical harvesting and transport); and that lead on to a ketchup
easy to handle at the dinner table (owing out of the bottle neither too
fast nor too slow). This ketchup also better be appealing to the senses
(it should have the ‘right’ colour, texture and taste). If such a tomato
does not yet exist, it has to be invented. This, then, is what the Heinz
company has done—and it has patented the seeds. The relevant
experts among our informants seem proud of it: “A tomato has to
have a high viscosity. Therefore, if you squeeze in a Heinz tomato only
a bit of juice will come out. It is very beefy, so that you can make a
good, thick ketchup with it. It also has a high sugar content, for the
sweeter the tomato itself, the less sweetener you have to add. And it
has to be sturdy, too, for you have to be able to transport it.” As
tomatoes are not given, good tomatoes are not given either. And in the
process of developing them, divergent qualities and requirements may
be tinkered with in combination.
What the case of tomatoes helps to bring out, is that such tinkering
is not a matter of taking control. For tomatoes may be adaptable, but
only within limits. What exactly their limits are, is not obvious from
the start. It can only be experimentally discovered in the process of
tinkering. You try pruning away a few branches and nd that this
increases the taste of the tomatoes on the branches that remain. You
make soup without thinking to peel and nd that you do not like the
bits of skin in it. You want to present your tomatoes in an attractive
way for the customers of the supermarket, but you have learned from
experience that you better respect their fragility. A seller: “You have to
present them in the box in which they arrive. You should never take a
load of tomatoes out of one box and put them in another. Of course if
there are just a few left, you may pile these on top of the next lot, in
the next box. But you should not start handling a whole load of them,
picking them up and putting them down, let alone pouring them from
one box into another. Some people do, but it is bad for their quality.”
The fragility of tomatoes calls for the attentiveness of those who work
with them. But however hard you try, working to improve tomatoes
138 Valuation Studies
While there is a lot of talk about healthy food these days, to our surprise our
analysis did not bring out ‘healthy’ as a relevant register of valuing. At some point
we wondered whether we had missed something. When searching for it, we found
off handed remarks about tomatoes being healthy, ‘of course’. Gradually it downed
on us that if tomatoes are ‘of course’ healthy, this may become an uninteresting
mode of valuing as there are no bad (unhealthy) tomatoes from which good (healthy)
ones might differentiate. And as informants do not feel they have to do something to
make tomatoes healthy. They just are. Some modes of preparation may be called
more healthy than others—but among our informants that is the end of it.
does not necessarily lead on to success. It is not a matter of taking
control and imposing an ideal, but of caringly playing with
possibilities, while staying attentive to what is good, not just about,
but also for your tomatoes. A grower: “Well, yes, we try to make them
happy! Water, light, nutrients, the lot of it. We give them what they
want.” If only you take proper care of your tomatoes, they care
This is not a symmetrical kind of care. Tomatoes owe their
short lives to human beings, but then they get harvested, transported,
sold, cooked up and eaten. Our informants, in their turn, owe (a part
of) their income to tomatoes; or they thrive on them physically, as they
enjoy, digest, absorb and metabolise tomatoes.
And who in this
relation has the most to give? Here’s a cook: “When a tomato is good,
you don’t have to do much. Just a drop of balsamic. Or olive oil,
pepper and salt. And then you are in heaven.”
How good this is, being in heaven, might need a case study of its own.
For now the question is what we have learned about valuing from the
present case, that of good tomatoes. For while some scholars argue
that the eld of valuation studies should work towards a coherent
theory, here we have taken another route. Throughout this text, while
laying out the case of ‘good tomatoes’, we have carefully abstained
from rmly dening our crucial terms and we have no ambition
whatsoever to legislate how others should be using them.
up a research eld, we contend, is not well served by xing a collective
language. This is not to say that cases should be studied in isolation
from each other and encaged in their own corner. Instead, a good case
study builds on and resonates with earlier ones while adding its own
specicities to the collection. In this way each new case may help to
expand and rene our collective abilities to recognise what may be the
case in this or that site or situation. If as a research collective we
abstain from fusing our different cases into a common scheme, but
hold them in tension, each new case will better equip us to study
valuing (valuation, evaluation, valorisation, etc.) in the next site or
What Is a Good Tomato? 139
Our analysis here is inspired by that of Harbers 2010, who mobilised a ‘care’
trope for analysing relations on the farm between farmers and animals—where
farmers feed, water and otherwise care for the animals and the animals, by providing
the farmers with a living, care back. In this, tomatoes, when it comes to it, are not so
different. See also the wonderful chapter in Pollan 2002, where he analyses apple-
growing from the perspective of the active apples.
Tomatoes cross bodily boundaries and come to be absorbed, see also
Abrahamsson and Simpson 2011.
As to what the eld should do, or might want to become, see the insightful
overview of the members of the editorial and advisory boards of Valuation Studies
(Kjellberg, Mallard et al. 2013).
situation—while remaining open to what so far has not been noticed.
For what is irrelevant in one site or situation, may be striking in
another. And what has been remarked upon in one case is
subsequently a lot easier to recognise once more. So what as a
collective might we learn from the case of good tomatoes?
First, this case resists the simplication of a two or three
dimensional scheme. Valuing tomatoes is hardly formalised and
intersections and interferences abound. We brought out various
registers of valuing, to do with money; handling; historical time;
naturalness; and sensual appeal. But while each of these registers
singles out a particular concern, what is good in relation to this
concern varies between experts (sellers want to earn money, while
buyers, by and large, do not like spending it)
; and it varies between
situations (while juicy tomatoes are good in a salad, rm ones are
better for sandwiches). What is more, while the registers are a unity in
one context (sensual qualities may jointly clash with monetary costs),
elsewhere there are clashes within a register (for instance between the
sensual qualities of looks and those of taste). Clashing ‘goods’ may
side-line or overrule each other, or become fused into compromise
(here price overrules taste; there taste overrules price; while elsewhere
the search is for a middle way). Jointly these complexities imply that it
is impossible to t the case of ‘good tomatoes’ into a nice schematic
overview. Time and again there are new shifts, contrasts and surprises.
Hence, while above we argued against formulating an encompassing
theory of valuing that seeks to be valid between and beyond cases, this
particular case suggest that it may even be difcult or impossible to
draw coherent conclusions about valuing in a single case, such as that
of ‘good tomatoes’. The lesson is that insights do not need to be
schematised. Our informants, at least, never miss an inclusive formal
scheme when in practice they value tomatoes.
Second, this case offers lessons about the performativity of valuing.
So far, a lot of research into valuing has been informed by cases
involving distant judgements. The justications that Boltanski and
Thévenot analysed took place before or after the act. The empirical
studies in the fascinating book that accompanied their theoretical
volume typically reported on meetings in which people deliberated
about things being done outside the meeting room.
A lot of
140 Valuation Studies
The ‘by and large’ is a caveat that indexes that this is not always the case. One of
our colleagues writes in his comments on an earlier draft that when he wants to treat
himself, he buys expensive tomatoes, looking forward to their great taste. But he
suggests that maybe that moment of spending extra money gives him more pleasure
than the actual taste.
Above we already mentioned the fabulous case of ‘good camembert’. Another
memorable one was done in a local bank and investigated on which grounds people
might get, or not get, a bank loan. However, it was a result of sitting in meetings
again. See Boltanski and Thévenot 1989.
philosophical work on normativity implicitly reects on the normative
tasks of outsiders such as judges who qualify other people’s actions
while seated on an elevated platform in clothing that is visibly distinct.
The favourite model of classic cultural sociology is the art critic who
may either praise or discard a painting, but all the while keeps his
hands on his backs. If he were to take out a black marker and add a
few lines for additional contrast, the museum guards would intervene.
In contrast, the experts whom we interviewed all have hands-on
relations to their tomatoes. Their assessments and their improvements
go together. In their practices valuing is not an exclusively
judgemental, nor a separate activity, but mixes with developing,
growing, processing, selling, cooking, cutting and eating. Hence, not
just seed developers strive after ‘good tomatoes’, but so, too, do
growers, processors, sellers (do not stock them too high!) cooks (do
not keep them in the fridge! Add balsamico!) and even eaters (if only
by actively attending). And as realising ‘good tomatoes’ is spread out,
this case suggests that judging, improving, appreciating, and lots of
other activities as well, may all be relevant for what it is to value.
Third, the activities meant to make tomatoes good do not offer
control. Most of the mundane practices where tomatoes are being
improved have not been tamed to t standards. They are populated by
all kinds of obdurate factors and actors (from soil, to trucks, to knives
and everything in between) and whenever something happens, all of
these respond in their own different ways. Sometimes they are
predictable, but often they are not. Hence we called the work that our
informants invest in achieving ‘good tomatoes’ care. The term ‘care’
suggests enduring work that seeks improvement but does not
necessarily succeed. It also implies that the object of improvement
should not be overpowered, but respected. Respect does not depend on
leaving things and situations as they are. Instead it is a matter of
calling on strengths and tinkering with weaknesses. The implication is
that not just any goal can be set. Instead the values targeted, the
objects being valued and valuing subjects come to gradually co-
constitute each other. Hence, traits like viscosity and sugar content
cannot all by themselves mark the ‘value’ of tomatoes. They intertwine
with such things as the susceptibility of bumblebees to pesticides, the
latest legislation about whether or not adding potassium is ‘natural’,
or the vinegar at hand in one’s kitchen. All these and many more
materialities and practicalities inform and co-shape what valuing
tomatoes comes to be in practice. Here is the lesson: valuing does not
depend on xed variables.
The fourth and nal lesson of our case has to do with eating. So far
we have left this in the shadow, but eating forms the soul of the case of
What Is a Good Tomato? 141
For a start, it is one of the many performative
formats that valuing may take. For whether it is done attentively and
in savouring mode, or hastily, out of routine or hunger, eating enacts
the tomatoes being eaten as good to eat—rather than as inedible or
waste. What is more, eating also forms the horizon of all the other
tomato-activities in which our informants engage. It is, after all,
because they are ‘good to eat’ that tomatoes are worth growing,
transporting, buying, cooking or caring for in other ways. However
many modes of valuing there are, and whatever the clashes and
compromises between them, they would not occur if tomatoes were
not also good to eat. But while the activity of eating crucially values
tomatoes in a positive way, it also destroys them. After lunch the shiny
red, juicy exemplar that looked so attractive in your salad, is no longer
to be seen. Its taste may rapidly vanish or linger for some while, but
one way or another your enjoyment doesn’t last. You may digest and
absorb the components of your tomato and these may be put to work
inside your body allowing you to smile, walk or read an article, but
there is no longer a distinguishable ‘tomato’ left. As eaters chew,
swallow and digest tomatoes, they perform them as good, but also
nish them off. Hence, in the case of tomatoes valuing does not only
go together with caring (improving, adding worth), but also with
destroying (killing, metabolising, decomposing). This is an important
lesson that the specicities of our case bring home. Exploring ‘good
tomatoes’ is not just a contribution to valuation studies, but also
suggests that devaluation studies are equally relevant to do.
Acknowledgments. This text comes out of the research project ‘Eating
bodies in Western practice and theory’ nanced through an ERC
Advanced Grant (AdG09 Nr. 249397-eatingbodies) gratefully
acknowledged. One of the present authors, Annemarie Mol, leads this
project. The other, Frank Heuts, took up the study of ‘good tomatoes’
as a case for his master’s thesis in sociology under AM’s supervision.
We would like to thank the team, Filippo Bertoni, Sebastian
Abrahamsson, Else Vogel, Michalis Kontopodis, Cristobal Bonelli and
in this case (for their detailed comments) especially Anna Mann, Emily
Yates-Doerr and Rebeca Ibanez Martin. For additional comments and
encouragements we thank Olav Velthuis, Mieke Aerts, Rogier van
Reekum, Thomas Franssen, Giselinde Kuipers, Tsjalling Swierstra,
Mattijs van de Port, Bodil Just Christensen and John Law. Two
anonymous reviewers and the editors of Valuation Studies were very
helpful as well. And obviously we are most grateful to our anonymous
142 Valuation Studies
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What Is a Good Tomato? 145
Frank Heuts did an MA in Sociology at the University of Amsterdam.
He wrote his master’s thesis on the question ‘what are good
tomatoes?’. Currently he is working as a research consultant. In
collaboration with colleagues of the Wageningen University and
Research Centre he is writing a research proposal to explore the
possibilities of increasing people’s daily fruit and vegetable
consumption. He also has a keen interest in sustainable banking
Annemarie Mol is a professor of Anthropology of the Body at the
University of Amsterdam. She has published widely on bodies, science
and technology, care practices, topologies and complexities. She is
currently working on questions that have to do with eating (‘what is it
to eat?’); normativities (good/bads, qualications, appreciating,
valuing); and the language of theory (which language; whose language;
and what is carried along in which words?) She works with a great
team thanks to an Advanced grant of the European Research
Committee and a Spinoza Prize of the Netherlands Organization of
146 Valuation Studies