The well-traveled tomato: a simple fruit has changed cuisines from Lima to Delhi

Raymond Sokolov

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the tomato. Of all New World foods, the tomato has traveled the farthest and widest and changed the face of more cuisines. The potato may have entrenched itself more deeply in the cold climates of northern and eastern Europe. Manioc may have transformed the subsistence economies of Africa. And corn, too, is a staple of life, or at least barnyard life, in many places outside this hemisphere. Yet the tomato, while it is rarely ever the basic means of anyone’s survival, is curiously fundamental on tables from Lima to Naples to Delhi.

Consider the case of Italy. The Greeks and Romans prospered there entirely without benefit of tomatoes. No one in Europe, Africa, or Asia tasted the fruit of Lycopersicon esculentum until the Spaniards found this Andean member of the Solanaceae family (eggplants, potatoes, deadly nightshade) under cultivation in Mexico in the early sixteenth century. But today it is impossible to imagine the cuisine of Italy without the tomato. The same is true of Spain. In the last twenty years, the tomato has crossed its last frontier and conquered China. Today, according to Charles Rick, the venerable tomato geneticist at the University of California at Davis, the tomato is now an important vegetable in the People’s Republic.

In the United States, the tomato is, of course, ubiquitous; the demand for it insatiable and unceasing. We eat so many tomatoes that they are the number one source of nutrients among all fruits and vegetables in our diet. In a study done in the late seventies by M. A. Stevens, also of the University of California, Davis, the tomato led the list of all crops in contribution of vitamins and minerals, although it was only sixteenth in its intrinsic nutritional value. In other words, it would be nutritionally much more efficient to eat broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, lima beans, peas, asparagus, artichokes, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, carrots, sweet corn, potatoes, or cabbage (the first fifteen in nutrient concentration in Stevens’s study, in descending order), but Americans prefer tomatoes. The next fifteen biggest nutritional contributors to the national diet are oranges, potatoes, lettuce sweet corn, bananas, carrots, cabbage, onions, sweet potatoes, peas, spinach, broccoli, lima beans, asparagus, and cauliflower.

And yet, when the Reagan administration cost-cutters declared that tomato ketchup could count as a vegetable in school lunches, there was a major outcry. The ironies were multiple. The least of them was the quibble, so beloved of writers of letters to the editor, that the tomato is not a vegetable but a fruit. This is technically correct as I hardly need to remind you. The tomato, since it begins as a plant ovary, is ipso facto a fruit, botanically. But gastronomically it is always lumped with the “vegetables,” the nonliquid, nonmeat foods that aren’t grains. Green peppers and squash and cucumbers and okra are all fruits that we have reclassified as vegetables because we eat them in the main part of the meal. Fruits, gastronomically speaking, are sweeter and are eaten as dessert or between meals. Exceptions to these distinctions are not lacking, but for the most part the botanist and the cook divide the plant world with two different but internally consistent systems. Botanists may puzzle over the difference between squashes and melons, but anyone who has eaten them knows that Hubbard squash is a “vegetable” and cantaloupe is a fruit. We can monkey with the basic qualities, usually by adding sugar or salt, and make a vegetable a fruit and vice versa (tomato ice cream is not unknown; apricots are fine with pot roast) but let’s face it: in the real world, the tomato is a vegetable. So why shouldn’t tomato puree (ketchup) be acceptable as such in school lunches?

Let’s assume that the quantity of ketchup in the hypothetical Reagan-era school lunch was equivalent to the nutrients in a whole raw tomato, I suspect that in nutritional content, the amount of ketchup used by the average grade schooler on french fries exceeds that of a whole tomato, but for the sake of argument, let’s suppose they were identical. I doubt very much that the anti-ketchup people would have been mollified. Nor do I think the outcry against the relatively high sugar content of ketchup was the source of the anti-ketchup fury.

It didn’t help, of course, that ketchup is tainted by its connection with fast food. I myself saw what this guilt by association could do when I devoted a column in this magazine a while ago to ketchup, sketching its long and international history as a tomato preserve and an Asian sauce. There was a small revolt among the food snobs, who let me know what ketchup was not a fit subject for Natural History. So I am inclined to believe that ketchup’s current low-class profile had something to do with the school-lunch brouhaha. But the major cause lay at a deeper level and grew out of our exaggerated worship of tomatoes as fresh, whole, raw fruit compared with tomatoes that have been cooked or processed. Tomatoes as salad versus tomatoes as sauce.

Statistically speaking, we consume far more processed tomatoes than fresh. The per capita U.S. consumption of fresh tomatoes tends to run to twelve or thirteen pounds a year, while tomato products total over twenty pounds, more than half of which is as ketchup and chili sauce. But the numbers obscure the more important difference between fresh tomatoes and processed. Fresh tomatoes are the most beloved and fought-over food in the marketplace. Their abysmally low quality for most of the year focuses the anger and paranoia of the alert consumer as no other outrage foisted upon us by agribusiness and the rapacious middleman. Everyone loves a red, pleasantly acid, ripe-to-bursting, sun-ripened, garden-fresh tomato–and everyone seems to want one not just in August but also in February. So the fresh tomato is the sexy, controversial part of the tomato success story. But the processed tomato, the tomato in its insidious form, blending in with other foods in an underground red river of culinary adaptability, is an even bigger part of the tomato’s conquest of the world.

Wherever you go, or so it seems, people have found new ways to add tomatoes to other foods. And since in most of these places, the tomato was not easily available before 1800 or even later, the current mass popularity of the tomato outside of Mexico must be the result of active choice by ordinary people. And the choice is aesthetic. People eat tomatoes because they like them, their color, and especially the effect they have on other foods.

Traditional staples insure survival; tomatoes are another kind of staple, a sort of culinary catalyst, perhaps a food whose main appeal is not nutrition or the satisfaction of gross appetite but the way it heightens the gastronomic value of a dish. You could dismiss this notion as a highfalutin’ way of saying that tomatoes make dishes taste better. But I think that’s a shallow way of looking at the power of the tomato in cooking. I think the tomato focuses and improves recipes that were appealing before the tomato was available, but which became extraordinarily attractive after it was added. Pizza and gazpacho are two outstanding examples. We can all easily think of others. But the truly remarkable side to the world’s tomatomania is that it was able to develop and spread in an atmosphere of almost universal tomatophobia. Out of initial ignorance and disgust grew ultimate passion.

George Allen McCue traced this process in his M.A. thesis at Washington University (St. Louis). His thesis was actually an annotated bibliography of early tomato references, published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden (1952). The story that emerges from hundreds and hundreds of statements by botanists, physicians, gardeners, and laymen is a tragicomedy of prejudice and blundering that somehow ends in truth and delight.

The earliest written mention of the tomato was in the commentary on the botanist Dioscorides published by Petrus Matthiolus in 1544 in Venice. He considered the tomato a species of mandrake recently brought to Italy and eaten like eggplant: “fried in oil with salt and pepper.” Matthiolus was apparently reporting this secondhand, but the “recipe” was requoted dozens of times by others, who also had no firsthand experience of the tomato. One wonders how many Renaissance savants actually tried to cook this proto-ratatouille. Certainly Pietro Antonio Michiel didn’t. In the later sixteenth century, he wrote: “If I should eat this fruit, cut in slices in a pan with butter and oil, it would be injurious and harmful to me.”

Melchior Guilandini looked at the bright side in 1572. He thought that Galen’s Lycopersicon might be “the tumatle of the Americans,” and its juice (the Lycopersicon’s and therefore possibly the tumatle’s was “useful because of its cooling nature for rheumy joints and other such pains.” Several other writers, taking off from the erroneous Latin name pomum amoris, concluded that the tomato must be an aphrodisiac or at least so beautiful as to “command love.” How else would it have acquired the name love apple? More circumspectly, Castor Durante opined in 1585 that tomatoes “afford little and poor nourishment.”

German authorities claimed certain medical properties for our favorite fruit. Joachim Camerarius of Frankfurt-am-Main said (in 1588) that it was effective against scabies. For his part, J. T. Tabernaemontanus, also of Frankfurt, thought tomatoes “should not be taken internally…. Some say that the juice is good for Saint Anthony’s fire and other fluxes.”

The tide turns at Antwerp in 1635. J. E. Nieremberg claims tomatoes can be pickled and that they bring out the flavor of foods and enhance appetite. But Dominicus Chabraeus paid no attention to this gospel. In a book published in Geneva in 1666, he listed the tomato under malignant and poisonous plants.

By the late eighteenth century, Linnaeus knew better and cautiously reported that people were known to eat tomatoes without ill effects. But the tomato remained an exotic with a lingering medicinal odor and gave off a whiff of the toxic right into the mid-nineteenth century. Right under the noses of these scholastic armchair botanists, however, ordinary gardeners were growing tomatoes in ever greater numbers and liking them ever better. Eventually, some writers noticed. Joseph Sabine reported to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1819 that “great use” had been made of tomatoes for culinary purposes; that plants were being grown in private and commercial gardens. The tomato, he thought, possessed an “agreeable acid” appropriate for use in soups and salads as well as “in the manner of ketchup.” By 1836, chops with tomato sauce was a dish well-enough known to be cited in the Pickwick Papers.

The first reference to the tomato in the United States is in William Salmon’s Botanologia (London, 1710), in which he talks about tomatoes in Carolina. The next report does not come until 1766. In 1782, Thomas Jefferson noted that his garden produced tomatoes, but not every American was as enlightened as Jefferson. Robert Gibbon Johnson has been declared a hero, because he ate a tomato on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey, in August 1820, thereby greatly encouraging public acceptance of the fruit. But as late as 1845, the editor of the Boston Courier was comparing tomatoes to “rotten potatoe-balls.”

He was an anachronism. It had taken three centuries, but by 1850, the tomato was a successful novelty well on the way to its current popularity and the industrial production of special hybrids genetically tailored to withstand machine picking and gas ripening in interstate trucks. Success, it seems, has spoiled the fresh tomato, but there is hope.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Lippincott/Williams & Wilkins

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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