You Say Tomato And I Say
by Marjorie Dorfman
A new and humorous look at a wonderful fruit that dates back to the times of the Incas.
(Lyrics from Lets Call The Whole Thing Off by George and Ira Gershwin)
While some people may never be happier than when they are consuming a chocolate chip cookie, I feel the same way about tomatoes. Whether Brandywine, Heirloom, Beefsteak, Cherry or Plum, I love tomatoes unconditionally and they seem to love me back. lycopersicon esculentum, is not the covert study of werewolves, but rather the scientific name for this luscious red "wolf peach fit for eating" that can be found every day on my kitchen table and inside my stomach. (In that order, if you please!) The tomato is native to the Americas and was known to the Aztecs and the Incas as early as 700 AD. Spread throughout Europe along with venereal disease by Pizarro and his Conquistadors, by 1850 the tomato was an important product in every American city.
Whether the tomato is fruit or vegetable is almost like the story of which came first, the chicken or the egg. It has long been the subject of debate. From a botanical standpoint, however, there is no argument. Tomatoes are not vegetables. They are fruit because they develop from the reproductive structures of the flowering plant. They are the edible part of the plant that contains the seeds. Vegetables are loosely defined as the edible stems leaves and roots of a plant. If you thought you were eating something else I do apologize, but you must get over it.
To the French the tomato was the "apple of love," the Germans called it "the apple of Paradise" and even though the British loved its passionate color, they feared it to be poisonous (or perhaps just French or German.) This same fear persisted among the early colonists in the United States. Thomas Jefferson was a great connoisseur of the tomato and tried to encourage Americans to eat it, but it wasnt until 1812 that the Creole culture in New Orleans dispelled fear of this fruit with their tomato-based gumbos and jambalayas. The people of Maine quickly followed suit, combining fresh tomatoes with seafood.
There are many facts about tomatoes, but there seem to be many more myths. We have already covered two; the first being that the tomato is poisonous and the other that they are vegetables. The tomato does belong to the nightshade family, along with belladonna, mandrake and tobacco, but it is perfectly harmless in all varieties as well as mighty tasty. Far from being bad for you, tomatoes are a good source of vitamins A, C and the antioxidant, lycopene, which is related to beta-carotene. A recent Italian study revealed that consuming seven or more servings of tomatoes a week reduces the risk of developing rectal, colon and stomach cancer by sixty per cent!
Many people think that all tomatoes are red when ripe, but this is not so. Not all of the myriad varieties of tomato reach maturity while they are red. They run from yellow (Lemon Boy) to deep purple (Cherokee Purple) in color. Another myth concerns the fear that California tomatoes are ripened with chemicals. While this might be so on a limited scale, most tomatoes are encouraged to ripen further with ethylene, the plants natural ripening hormone. Chemical residue from pesticides is another unfounded fear among some consumers. Today all California tomatoes are residue free due to pest and disease resistant varieties and drip irrigation.
The truth is that I would probably eat tomatoes even if they were bad for me. I smoked for many years before I stopped and I knew all about cigarettes and lung cancer. My love for the tomato goes deeper and in this case runs pure and red to the core. I would cross enemy lines for a tomato, I think. One of the things I love about them is that their world is so vast. Its a good thing they are on our side because surely they outnumber people on this planet, twenty to one. I often wonder if I will ever live to taste all the varieties in the tomato world. Oh, well. I can dream, cant I?
But where would I start? Among the Beefsteak alone I have encountered more than fifty varieties. Consider Boondocks, a pink-purple number with a flavor so sweet and delicious that some people make wine with them. Then theres Goliath; an heirloom variety grown since the late 1800s which grows up to 3 pounds. Lets not omit Mortgage Lifter, an old pink variety which folklore claims was named by a man who sold this crop to pay off a farm he was about to lose. Theres also the Dinner Plate beefsteak, which is heart-shaped, and so large that one slice can fill a dinner plate. Lets not forget the Watermelon beefsteak whose very large shape is oblong and reminiscent of, well, take a guess.
Many of the heirloom varieties have a history that dates back to the early years of our country. Theres even one called The Abraham Lincoln, which is a remarkably smooth and mild tasting variety that is dark red, meaty and solid. Its excellent for juice, catsup and slicing. (There is no John Wilkes Booth tomato, fortunately. Sic Semper tomatus!) There are also myriads of novelty tomatoes. Consider Banana Legs with its four inch yellow, pointed banana shaped fruits and the Sausage Tomato which grows up to six inches long and looks like a huge red banana pepper. Its fine flavor is used for catsup and sauces. And there are literally hundreds of others.
I have saved the best for last, but not because of its taste. Truthfully, I do not know how the Monica Lewinski tomato tastes, but I guess it doesnt matter. This tomato was named after a Russian lady from the last century! A recent show about farm life versus city life on National Public Radio is my source, even though the information probably should have come from the files of Ripleys "Believe It Or Not". Whether or not this red-hot little number ever had sex with our former president is anyones guess. Maybe it was just part of that famous stain on that famous dress. (If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. It connects New York City with Staten Island.)
In any case, the tomato, Russian or otherwise, needs no resumé or recommendation. It has already proved itself to be worthy of complementing almost any dish, time and time again. Id like to be the first to shake its hand, that is, if I werent too busy slicing it up and sliding it down my gullet!
Did you know . . .