“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
I couldn’t agree more with Lewis Grizzard, the American writer and humorist who had a taste for one of the more divine elements of summer.
He and I are not alone in our fondness for this fruit. John Denver sang of his affections:
“Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What would life be like without home grown tomatoes
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and home grown tomatoes.”
Dickens was known to have “ate his chops in ‘tomata’ sauce,” though at one time, eating tomatoes was believed to be a dangerous activity. In the late 1500s, herbalist John Gerhard insisted that the tomato was poisonous and unfit for consumption. He was right in one sense. The tomato plant belongs to the nightshade family, whose members are known for their deadly proclivities, and, in fact, the leaves of the tomato plant are indeed toxic.
It is good that our forebearers overcame their terror of tomatoes. In fact, we have more than made up for their disdain; 93 per cent of home gardeners have a place in their plot for tomatoes.
Even if you don’t grow them, chances are that you eat them — lots of them. The average American consumes about 24 pounds of tomatoes per year. This number has risen about 30 per cent over the past 20 years.
This boost is not due to an increase in the availability of garlic, basil, and mozzarella cheese; rather it results from our penchant for processing. Three-quarters of our intake is in the form of salsa, ketchup and sauce.
Though it is likely that the best way to use tomatoes is for eating, people have found additional uses for them. In Bunol, Spain, during the last Wednesday of August, La Tomatina is celebrated. La Tomatina is a giant food fight, with more than 30,000 participants throwing 150,000 overripe tomatoes at each other. Lewis and I would likely both lament the frivolous waste of such a fabulous food.
Whether to throw them or eat them is not the only quandary surrounding the tomato. This plant has a more peculiar predicament, an identity crisis that has caused quite a conflict.
Is it a fruit or vegetable? This seemingly simply query went all the way the Supreme Court. Botanically, the tomato is a fruit because it is a seed-bearing structure that grows from the flowering part of the plant. Due to the way it is prepared and eaten, others, including chefs, consumers and even customs agents, have maintained that it is a vegetable.
The Supreme Court became involved in the debate due to a dispute over tariffs. The Tariff Act of 1883 required that vegetables, but not fruit, be taxed. So the Nix family (importers of tomatoes) sued Edward Hedden, tax collector of the port of New York, to recover dues paid. The Court unanimously decided in favor of the defendant and conceded that in common parlance, the tomato is a vegetable and should be taxed.
This decision has been used as a precedent in more than a few court cases over the years. The New Jersey legislature cited it as recently as 2005 as a basis for the designation of the tomato as the state vegetable.
There are many other names for the tomato. The Nahuas tribe called them tomalt, which means swelling fruit, while the Aztec word was xitomall, which translated into “plump thing with a naval.” In French, they are pommes d’amore, or love apples, thought to have aphrodisiac properties, and in Spain, pomme d’oro, or yellow apples. The plant’s scientific name, Solanum lycopersicum, describes a “wolf peach,” which likely originated with the German legend that plants in the nightshade family summon werewolves.
No matter how you describe them, classify them, use them, or even pronounce them, just don’t take George Gershwin’s suggestion from his 1937 song and “call the whole thing off!”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.