Judging by the Covers | Darra Goldstein

I just received an e-mail from an admirer of Gastronomica who wrote to say how much she liked the latest issue (Winter 2003), adding that “I’ll never look at a jelly donut again without blushing.” The jelly doughnut she referred to sits plumply on the cover in a painting by Emily Eveleth. It is one of a series of doughnuts, suffused with shimmering light, that tempt us to pleasure. With the lone doughnut against a spare, flat background, the painting’s unadorned simplicity highlights the textured airiness of the pastry, its sugary glaze. This is no Pop-Art Thiebaud confection in candy colors that make us smile; it captures instead an existential longing. Any further interpretations are surely in the eye of the beholder…

Some readers were disturbed by the cover of Gastronomica‘s charter issue, with Bunuel’s still shot of fingers in the mouth celebrating the erotic pleasures of taste. Other readers squirmed at the Fall 2001 image of Lawrence Fishburne with the side of meat, either strumming it or cradling it as a machine gun, depending on how you interpreted it. The Fall 2002 cover evoked another small squall. As described by one newspaper columnist, “The Fall, 2002, issue sports an extreme close-up of a mustachioed man’s mouth consuming a tomato, which is held by an extremely dirty hand. Ahem.”

Ahem what? When I first saw this photograph at the Berkeley studio of photographer Gail Skoff, I thought, Yes! Here is the image to reconnect us with the soil, to celebrate the organic, to remind us of the sensual pleasure of biting into an utterly ripe tomato fresh from the vine—a tomato that has neither been gassed to ripen, nor packaged in cellophane; one that is not hard to the touch but lush and juicy. Here is the image to capture the earthy essence of summer when the darkness of November is upon us.

Photographs by Gail Skoff © 2003

The first call came from a Los Angeles bookstore, informing me that all of the Fall issues were being returned because the cover offended customers. Precisely what they found offensive never became clear, and I declined to speculate. I began to hear—usually indirectly—about readers who felt that this cover had gone too far. Too far from what, I wondered? Many readers (including my eighty-one-year-old, tomato-loving father) found the image joyful in its evocation of summer warmth and bounty.

In fact, the photograph was serendipitous. Gail Skoff describes the moment:

I took that photo in midsummer 2002, in the town of Ollioules near Toulon in the south of France. I often visited a farm there called Les Olivades, which was one of the few places in the area where they cultivate organic heritage tomatoes and other interesting varieties of vegetables. Agriculture in France has become very impersonal. Merchants in markets usually do not sell their own produce; instead, it comes from a big warehouse. But Les Olivades is owned by a man who is passionate about preserving vegetables that are becoming extinct. One day I was photographing in his tomato greenhouse, where there is a virtual tunnel of tomatoes of all different colors. The light was beautiful, the raw smell of tomato plants intoxicating.

One of the harvesters picked a ripe tomato and put it in his mouth instead of his basket. He had such a look of pure pleasure on his face that I photographed him as he bit into it, hoping to capture that sense of a joyful moment.

I sent the farmer a copy of Gastronomica. Through a mutual acquaintance he commented that he found it surprising that Americans would put a picture of an Arab on a magazine cover.

So I am left wondering, why did The Tomato Eater offend people? With those dirty fingers, he looks like my husband when he works in the garden. With that mustache, he looks a lot like a good friend of mine. With that smear of tomato on his lips, he looks a bit like me.