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In praise of tomatoes

September 8, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

If your gardening experience this year has been similar to that of most area gardeners, its been a really good one. North Country home and market gardeners and consumers that make a point of purchasing locally-grown produce at farm stands and farmers markets have been enjoying fresh fruit and vegetables as snacks, in garden salads, on sandwiches, and in side dishes, soups and stir fries for weeks, even months. And they've been canning, freezing and regularly leaving zucchini, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes and lots of other goodies with family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

And, unlike last summer with its cool weather, seemingly endless rain, and late blight, this season has been, by all accounts, an especially good one for tomatoes. Nonetheless, scattered outbreaks of late blight have been confirmed in home gardens in several counties across New York and Pennsylvania and in two counties in Vermont. Gardeners and growers should be using preventative fungicide sprays of products containing the active ingredients chlorothalonil or copper. Home gardeners might also consider harvesting tomatoes when they are partially ripe and/or harvesting green tomatoes and allowing them to ripen indoors.

Tomatoes are an especially versatile fruit, or should I say vegetable? Technically they're fruit; the seed-bearing ripened ovary of a flower. But in 1893, the United States Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes were vegetables. So, legally

Either way, whether as dinner, a snack, or dessert, they're really tasty and extremely nutritious. They derive their red color from a high concentration of lycopene; higher than is found in any other fruit or vegetable. Lycopene is a significant antioxidant that is not naturally produced within the human body. Tomatoes also contain vitamins C and A, calcium, potassium, and iron, and are a good source of fiber. They add color and flavor to a literally endless variety of both hot and cold dishes. And, even though the season will soon be drawing to a close, especially for those living at higher elevations, tomatoes can be processed and used throughout the fall and winter.

Tomatoes are native to the Americas; most likely originating in the Andes Mountains of Peru, where plants producing cherry sized fruit can still be found growing wild. There is considerable debate however, as to where tomatoes were first cultivated and just how they found their way north. In all probability, they were originally cultivated by the Incas and, by the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived, widely grown throughout much of South and Central America.

The conquistadors brought seeds back to Europe, and tomatoes were soon being grown in Spain, Portugal, Greece, France and Italy. They were first written about in a cookbook found in Naples dating back to 1692. In both Italy and France, they may have been regarded as an aphrodisiac. Italian herbalists called them poma amoris, and the French called them pomme d'amour. Both translate as apple of love.

Although tomatoes were quickly winning over hearts and palates, and becoming widely accepted in kitchens throughout much of the European continent, the British, and accordingly the American colonists, remained skeptical; continuing to regard them as deadly poisonous. Many believed that eating even one tomato would result in appendicitis or that tomato skins would adhere to the lining of the stomach, causing intense suffering and eventual death. Some even believed that eating tomatoes would turn blood to acid.

Those beliefs persisted until the late 18th or early 19th century, when Thomas Jefferson began to extol the virtues of the often reviled tomato. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782, Jefferson wrote that tomatoes were being grown in some Virginia gardens. And while it is true that many American colonists grew tomatoes strictly for decoration, according to the writings of Peter J. Hatch, director of the Monticello Gardens and Grounds, Jefferson and his daughters used the tomatoes that were grown in their Virginia garden in several family recipes. They also sold them at market. And there are unsubstantiated stories of Jefferson eating tomatoes in public, much to the dismay of startled onlookers.

Then there is the story of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, who, on Sept. 26, 1820, stood upon the steps of the Salem, N.J. courthouse and, according to the legend, fearlessly devoured a rather large basket of tomatoes in front of a crowd of as many as 2,000 spectators, many of who had come to see the darned fool commit suicide. Of course, Colonel Johnson did not keel over, suffer convulsions, or thrash about wildly on the ground before breathing in his last. Nonetheless, some accounts do state that the local firemen's band was playing a funeral dirge as he walked away. Word of the Colonel's audaciousness spread quickly and more and more Americans began to accept that tomatoes were, in fact, edible, although many would eat them only after they had been exposed to heat and processed with vinegar and spices in what was an early forerunner to what we know today as ketchup.

Tomatoes continued to gain popularity and before long seed catalogs were offering cultivars of varying size, shape, color and flavor. An 1872 cookbook, the Appledore Cook Book, written by Maria Parloa, one of the most popular cooking teachers and cookbook authors of the nineteenth century, contained a recipe for tomato chowder. It is the first known recipe for tomato soup.

In 1897, Joseph Campbell, with assistance from a nephew, Dr. John T. Dorrance, developed a commercially viable method for condensing soup. Campbell's condensed tomato soup hit the market and the Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company soon became the Campbell Soup Company. Dorrance eventually bought the company from the Campbell family, turning the business into one of America's longest standing brands, and mmmm making a lot of mmmm money in the process.

The rest is history. America's fear of killer tomatoes became a love affair. During the 1920s, every young American man who was part of the flapper culture wanted to be seen dancing with a 'hot tomato.'

Today, tomatoes are grown in literally every corner of the world, ending up in spaghetti sauces, barbecue sauces, cocktail sauces, soups, gumbos, jambalayas, juice, and ketchup. They can be stuffed, boiled, broiled, grilled, stewed, pureed, pickled, deviled, glazed, or end up on pasta, pizza, tamales, meatloaf or in bloody Marys.

Tomatoes are the state vegetable of New Jersey. They are both the state vegetable and the state fruit of Arkansas. (Take that, Supreme Court Justices!) And tomato juice is the official state beverage of Ohio.

Without a doubt, tomatoes are one of, if not the most widely grown garden vegetable in the United States, with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reporting that, on average, Americans consume nearly 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes each year. For the luckiest amongst us, those tomatoes are homegrown.

 
 

 

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