Exploring the incredible, edible tomato throughout history

Laurie Snider
Notes from the Nest

Despite the fact that daytime temperatures are still soaring, accompanied by brutal, wilting humidity, summer time is definitely winding down. A clear indication of this is the abundance of tomatoes, which are causing the lanky vines they’re still attached to, to bow over the sides of my garden box with their weight.

This can mean only one thing: Several busy afternoons in the kitchen are ahead of me  as I process these ruby red and orange jewels down into sauces, soups, and slow-roasted delicacies to tide us over during the upcoming colder months.

Although a fair amount of manual labour is required, I find these to be pleasant days, as the smells of stewing tomatoes, garlic, vinegar, herbs and spices diffuse about my cooking space.

My mom was the one who taught me how to put things up for the winter, canning tomatoes, beets and pickles. She taught me how to make pickled vinegars, sterilize jars and use alum to make the crunchiest dills. Hers were definitely red ribbon, fair worthy! Her sealers and lids were the kind you now find at flea markets and antique shows, with glass tops that required red rubber rings to get the perfect seal.

I’m well aware that it would be much easier to stop at the local grocer to pick up a can of tomatoes, sauce, or pickles — and probably cheaper too — but I enjoy making things from scratch.

Growing some of our own food, then peeling, chopping and simmering it on the stove before ladling it into warm, bottles can be quite meditative. It’s an art form that connects me to the past of my mom, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, like generational apron strings weaving our decades together. Happily, for me our daughter Ellie often joins me, keeping the connection going, for at least another lifetime.

The plump, juicy, red orbs presently ripening in my garden, are botanically classified as a fruit. These are the berries or ovaries of the plants, containing their seeds. In the culinary world they are classed as vegetables, as that is how they are most often used. Peppers, squash, green beans, avocados and egg-plants are also botanically classed as fruits but served as vegetables.

The classification issue of tomatoes led to legal disputes in the late 1800s, as tariffs were imposed on vegetables but not on fruits. On May 10, 1893, the United States Supreme Court declared tomatoes as vegetables, based on how they were most often used, served as dinner, not dessert. Or as the 1937, George Gershwin song, “Let’s call the whole thing off,” goes, “to-mate-toe, to-mat-toe,” fruit or vegetable, what’s the difference, its all the same to me.

The Aztecs first used tomatoes in their cooking, as early as 500 B.C. They were taken to Europe in 1521, by Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez. Growing easily in the Mediterranean climate, cultivation of them began in the 1540s. The      Italians initially grew them, in gardens and flower beds as ornaments. Their ability to spread and mutate, creating new varieties helped them spread across Italy.

Many wealthy Europeans, thought they were poisonous. This was due, in fact, to their choices in dinnerware. Richer people tended to eat their meals off of pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Tomatoes being quite acidic, caused the lead to leech out of the plates, resulting in poisoning and death. Lower-class citizens ate off of wooden plates and thus avoided this nasty consequence.

Tomatoes are 95 per cent water, which must be the heavy kind, as in 2014 the world production of tomatoes was 170.8 million tonnes. That’s a heck of a lot of to-mat-toes! China is responsible for 31 per cent of that. California is the epicenter of commercial production, producing a third of the world’s processed tomatoes.

Do you happen to remember where you were, on July 15? I sure hope, if you’re a resident of Ontario, you were out somewhere celebrating, as it was officially Tomato Day! And Ontario, siding with the U.S. Supreme Court, instead of the botanists, granted it the distinction as the official vegetable of our wonderful province, since 2016! That’s certainly worthy of cheering about.

While we’re in the mood for celebrating, I could continue to dazzle you with astounding facts about tomatoes. For instance, the whopping over 10,000 varieties of them that there are, or that the largest one ever grown, weighed 7 lbs, 12oz. These are not to be outdone by the Guinness-record holding single largest plant, that grew at Disney World, which produced over 32,000 tasty fruits. Instead, I draw you back to my garden, where the late summer sun is perfecting what to me are no small miracles —  a few more succulent, delectable beauties, ready to pop into my pot!

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