I don't know about you, but I'm missing tomatoes. They're reappearing in the stores but they look a little anemic, and some news reports are saying the salmonella scare might not be over yet. Yearning for a big, red, juicy ripe tomato reminded me of something I'd written as a filler article for an online magazine a few years ago. I found the history and facts about tomatoes interesting and hope you do too. I'll never take them for granted again. The tomatoes, not the facts.
It is bright red, plump, juicy and grows in gardens around the world. However you serve it, the tomato is the world’s most popular fruit. Yes, in strictly botanical terms, it is not a vegetable at all. This is because a fruit is defined as the edible part of a plant that contains seeds and well… that’s a tomato. However in 1893, the Supreme Court ruled in NIX v HEDDEN, a case involving import duties, that tomatoes were to be considered vegetables. Regardless, more than sixty million tons of them are produced worldwide each year. And in case you’re wondering, the next most popular fruits are bananas, apples, oranges and watermelons in that order.
The tomato was first cultivated in Central America in 700 A.D. by the Aztecs and Incas. When Cortez and his Conquistadors reached the area in the sixteenth century, they discovered the “tomatl” and took seeds back to Europe where they were quickly assimilated into the cuisine of Spain, Portugal and Italy. The Italians considered the tomato an aphrodisiac and gave it the name “poma amoris” or love apple.
The tomato traveled north on the continent and eventually made its way to England where it was declared poisonous. This same myth held favor in the American colonies as well until Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the Salem, New Jersey courthouse steps on September 26, 1820 and took a big bite of a love apple. And another and another until he’d eaten an entire basket of them to the astonishment of a shocked crowd. Around this same time, Creoles in New Orleans, many of whom were of Spanish or Portuguese descent, began using the tomato in gumbo and jambalaya. Soon after, the flavorful commodity made its way into seafood dishes in Maine. According to a 1997 study, sixty-eight percent of chefs use canned tomatoes for cooking either for flavor, convenience or quality.
Tomatoes belong to the deadly nightshade family and are a cousin to the eggplant, potato, tobacco and red pepper. The relationship to nightshade gave rise to the rumors of toxicity. Some even claimed they caused conditions such as appendicitis, “brain fever” (commonly known as meningitis) and cancer.
Today scientists all over the world are studying the tomato, and recommending its consumption, for its health benefits. Low in calories, absent of fat and cholesterol, and low on the glycemic index, tomatoes are a rich source of vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium, fiber and lycopene.
A powerful antioxidant, lycopene has been shown to have a multitude of benefits. In Italian studies where participants ate at least seven servings of tomatoes a week, a sixty percent reduction in colon, rectal and stomach cancer was noted. Harvard researchers discovered a forty-five percent reduction in prostate cancer in men who ate ten servings a week and in Israel, scientists have found lycopene to inhibit lung, breast and endometrial cancer cells. Lycopene can also help older people stay active longer.
Tomatoes also contain an alkaloid called tomatine, which may prevent or heal certain fungal skin diseases, and the yellow jelly that surrounds the tomato seeds has been found to contain a substance that prevents the formation of blood clots. According to researchers in Scotland, this “tomato factor” may have a similar effect as aspirin on circulation by interfering with platelet clumping, which can cause circulatory problems, heart attacks or strokes.
* California leads the world in the production of processed tomatoes, but Florida has the largest fresh tomato industry. Consumers became acutely aware of this after the 2004 hurricane season decimated the tomato crop in Florida and prices skyrocketed.
* Every man, woman and child in America eats almost eighty pounds of tomatoes per year, more than half in the form of ketchup.
* The largest tomato on record, grown in Oklahoma in 1986, weighed seven pounds, twelve ounces.
* There are more than ten thousand varieties of tomatoes.
* Tomatoes range in color from yellow, pink, orange and red to deep maroon, purple and bright green. Sizes range from the thumbnail-sized to enormous 3-pound specimens.
* Tomatoes lose their nutritional value when refrigerated. If purchased or picked while green, they will ripen in a few days on your kitchen counter.
Thanks to Cortez (for bringing it back from Mexico) and Colonel Johnson (for his sensational repudiation of the tomato’s ill effects), we now can all enjoy the many uses for tomatoes. They end up in pizza, pasta, mixed drinks, various sauces and my particular favorite, the tomato sandwich. It’s simple: take a ripe tomato straight from the vine, wash and slice. Sprinkle heavily with salt and pepper and put between two slices of your favorite bread, which have been liberally spread with mayonnaise. Take a big bite and relish the flavor as the juice drips down your chin.
Whether you say tomato or you say tomahto, it seems that a love apple a day might keep the doctor away. So enjoy that pizza, douse your eggs with ketchup or just chop one up and sprinkle it on your salad and enjoy the benefits of the world’s most popular fruit. Recipes
And here's the recipe for that famous dish from the Irondale Cafe
Fried Green Tomatoes (from http://whistlestopcooking.blogspot.com/)
3-4 green tomatoes sliced ¼ inch thick
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup corn meal
1/2 tsp salt & pepper
Mix together flour, cornmeal, salt & pepper. Add enough milk to create a thick batter. Heat 2 inches of oil in a large skillet. Batter each tomato slice, and wipe off excess. Carefully place in hot oil, browning on both sides. (may or may not need turning, depending on the amount of oil) To cool, drain in a colander to keep tomatoes from becoming soggy. Salt to taste.
Are you a tomato lover? Or has the tomato shortage not fazed you at all? What foods do you look forward to every summer?
P.S. Dear Muse, Whenever you want to come back home is fine with me. Your room is ready and the pantry is stocked. I've left the porch light on for you.