Like the red poinsettia, the red, ripe tomato comes to us by way of Mexico by way of Peru … except that it starts out green. And it’s not a vegetable. It’s a berry, a beloved berry. Botanical correctness mandates that you refer to the tomato as a fruit and being pulpy with edible seeds classifies it as a berry. How about that!
Now if you’re a bit confused that’s understandable. As usual some bureaucratic chicanery underlies this berry-versus-vegetable business. In 1893, an importer quite correctly claimed the tomato as a fruit. He did so, however, in a bit of subterfuge to avoid vegetable import tariffs the United States imposed. This dispute went all the way to the Supreme Court where it ruled for taxation purposes that the tomato be classified as a vegetable. The high court reasoned that the tomato was primarily eaten in the manner of a vegetable rather than a fruit. Judges and lawyers. Don’t you love the way they bend facts to suit their causes.
Political expediency aside , this exotic berry belongs to the nightshade family, a mysterious family filled with toxic kinsfolk. Owing to their toxicity, nightshades garner more fame as drugs than as foods. The best-known pharmaceutical nightshades include mandrake, tobacco, and atropa belladonna, “Deadly Nightshade.” Nightshades contain alkaloids and potent belladonna causes deliriums and hallucinations. Belladonna (“beautiful woman” in Italian) derives from women who used deadly nightshade to dilate their pupils for cosmetic effect. Atropine and the genus name for deadly nightshade derive from Atropos, one of the three Fates who, according to Greek mythology, chose how a person would die. That’s why people considered the tomato poisonous. Yes, that Southern staple come summertime was greatly feared once. Eat one of those juicy red things and you’ll die.
Thank heavens for one intrepid Northerner, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey, for daring to eat the taboo tomato. The old colonel had brought some tomatoes home from abroad in 1808. Each year he offered a prize yearly for the largest fruit grown, but no one wanted to eat tomatoes, large or small.
That’s when Colonel Johnson manned up and risked his life so that you and I could enjoy tomato sandwiches, salads, and soup, among other tomato treats. On September 26, 1820, Colonel Johnson stood on the steps of the Salem courthouse and ate an entire basket of tomatoes without keeling over or suffering any ill effects. More than 2,000 people came to witness his public suicide. The local firemen’s band played a dirge as a twisted tribute to the colonel’s self-destructive gastronomical ways.
Imagine the colonel’s joy at seeing how his stunt kicked North America’s love affair with the tomato into high gear. By 1842, farm journals of the time were touting the tomato as the latest craze.
Well, the craze is still with us except it sure seems hard to find a good vine-ripened tomato. Grocery store tomatoes taste like wax. And that’s precisely why I’m doing two things to make sure I have delicious tomatoes this summer. One, I’m growing my own, and two, I’m hitting the roadside stands out in the country where you can find ripe, red tomatoes almost as big as a softball.
The best tomatoes I ever ate came off the vines of Lincoln County plants. We grew a lot of tomatoes back in the day. The best tomato I never ate grew to huge proportions in the times when people ran their sewer lines downhill a distance. Well, what place can better grow tomatoes than a sunny, well-watered drainage field where plenty of fertilizer occurs naturally. We had a magnificent tomato vine take root right in the middle of a mess, you could say. That vine grew to a monstrous size and its tomatoes were gigantic. We were too squeamish to eat them, though we shouldn’t have feared a thing. Nature does a wonderful job of converting organic waste to beneficial things.
Another great tomato memory comes courtesy of heirloom silverware and homemade mayonnaise. The place was Athens, Georgia, at the home of Dr. William Crane. His wife, Kathryn, served me tomatoes on fine china, and an aged silver container held her homemade mayonnaise. She blended a magical concoction of egg yolks, eggs, vinegar, and cooking oil until it set up thick and creamy. That mayonnaise was so good I’d sit there and eat the tomato itself with a bit of salt and a heap of homemade mayonnaise.
Yet another good memory are the tomato sandwiches Mom made for picnics, road trips, and church socials. And who can forget a perfect BLT! Still, when you are in a pinch for time and need a quick but fabulous lunch it’s hard to beat the classic tomato sandwich.
Here’s a recipe for a great tomato sandwich. Get a vine-ripened “slicing” tomato from a local garden. Make sure it is plump and juicy. If you don’t have to stand over the sink to eat it you have a sorry tomato. Get some high-dollar, 100 percent whole wheat bread and quality mayonnaise. If you prefer use white or “light” bread as Granddad Poland called it. Now get a big Vidalia onion and some fresh hearts of Romaine lettuce. Spread mayonnaise on both pieces of bread, slice up some thick slabs of tomato and salt and pepper them good. Add a thick slice of onion and lay a layer of lettuce down. Now (and some of you may skip this step) put a big glob of sour cream right in the middle and eat what I promise will be a meal unto itself. Thank that courageous Yankee, Colonel Johnson, and enjoy this bountiful berry from the nightshade family that’s a Southern classic.
Winding down, here’s some tomato trivia: Tomatoes’ high acidic content makes them a prime candidate for canning, and that’s one of the main reasons folks canned the tomato more than any other fruit or vegetable by the 19th century’s end. The largest tomato on record, seven pounds and 12 ounces, grew in Edmond, Oklahoma, in 1986. Gordon Graham grew it and he sliced it up to make sandwiches for 21 family members. Because it is a member of the nightshade family a tomato plant’s leaves are poisonous. More than 25,000 varieties of tomatoes exist.
Finally I’ll serve up two good quotes about tomatoes. First in line is the late Andy Rooney: “The federal government has sponsored research that has produced a tomato that is perfect in every respect, except that you can’t eat it. We should make every effort to make sure this disease, often referred to as ‘progress’, doesn’t spread.”
Next up, Georgia’s Lewis Grizzard: “It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
Amen to that.