Monday, 9 April 2012

A brief history of the tomato

Our common summer veggies all have a history behind them, of thousands of years of cultivation, selection, and transportation.

Take tomatoes, for example.

In North America, tomatoes are just such a quintessential garden vegetable (or fruit, technically, but more on that later) - summer just wouldn't be complete without fresh, juicy tomatoes.

I was up at my Nana's place in Kingston for Easter. My mom usually doesn't buy tomatoes out of season - they're so hit and miss, and often mealy. The taste of just-toasted (gluten free) bread, with hummus, and ham, and cheese, and mustard - with a nice thick slice of tomato to complete it.
It just melted in my mouth, all the flavours melding together into perfection. Mouthwatering.
The taste of tomatoes in April sends me back to the hot July days we spend up at our cottage. It's hard to imagine life without tomatoes.

But at one point, they tomatoes weren't so widespread. In fact, they were considered toxic: they is, after all, related to deadly nightshade! In fact, according to one 17th century writer "Tomatoes should never be eaten raw as death will be instantaneous."

The tomato is thought to have originated in Peru, in the Andes; natives to South & Central America were cultivating (& quite happily eating!) it before the Spanish brought it back to Europe, where it was grown solely for decoration.

In their original habitat, tomatoes are actually perennials - they grow year-round. But the considerable discrepancy in temperature between Canada and the and central America explains why explains why they're grown as annuals up here, and they need to be coddled in the face of cold weather.

Nightshade berries look an awful lot like teensy tomatoes!
In addition to being in the same family as deadly nightshade - Solanaceae - tomatoes were called by the latin name "Lycopersicon", (meaning "wolf-peach" - referring to the old Germanic belief that members of this family could call up werewolves) which associated it further with deadly nightshade.

In fact, all parts of the plant except for the fruit are poisonous.

Eventually, after being grown as an ornamental in Britain and Europe, tomatoes began to be accepted as a vegetable. They travelled back across the ocean with settlers to the United States and Canada.
Finally, during the 19th century, they became popular, and were widely grown.

Today there are thousands of varieties of tomatoes in a rainbow of colours and a multitude of sizes. They are eaten plain, in salads and sandwiches, in sauces, and in soups.

Have you ever had an argument with anyone over whether to call a tomato a fruit or a veggie? Botanically speaking, they're actually fruits - a fruit is the ovary (flesh) and seeds of a flowering plant (more precisely, they're berries).
In 1887, though, they were included by the United States government in the 10% tarrif laws on vegetables that were then instituted. When they were sued by tomato importer John Nix, the country's highest court ruled that tomatoes did indeed count as vegetables: the argument was that for culinary purposes and in ordinary speech, tomatoes were veggies. (Tell that to the next person who tries to convince you that tomatoes are indisputably fruits and that's the end of the story!)

So, it seems, there's a long story behind that tasty bite of tomato in a sandwich.

1 comment:

  1. Mmmm, summer tomatoes! Well, it's nice to know where they come from...thanks for doing the research for me!