In an informal survey (read while walking around during my day), the tomato was the unanimous pick for favorite garden vegetable. Americans eat an average of about 100 pounds of medium-sized tomatoes per year, according to Robert Hendrickson in American Tomato, almost half of them fresh. The best of those come right out of our gardens.
In fact, my vote for best tomato moment is when I am waist high in sticky leaves. Try this: gently clasp the fruit of this vine, notice how the pluck of harvest resounds along both the stem of the tomato plant and your own; sink your teeth through ripe pulp, thrust out your chin and—wait for it—catch the dribbles.
Despite amazing flavor, the tomato began humbly. It first grew in the Andes and is still found puckered there, throughout Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, growing wild like shriveled grape clusters on a vine. It became a cultivated crop in Central America and then Mexico after Mayan seafaring traders brought the seed to the Yucatan. The traders called the fruit tomatl, or xtomatl, and so prized it that tomato images are traced on heritage pottery from the region.
The tomato began its circuitous journey back to the New World by first joining up with Cortez in 1521 after the Aztec uprisings. The tomatl seeds, jostled by an ocean voyage, took root next in Spain where the new fruit was hailed as a rare new food. Its lush color and plumpness gave it an allure it never acquired in the Americas. It began to be called the “love apple” and gained a reputation of being an aphrodisiac.
A Spanish chef is said to have combined the fruit with olive oil, spices and onions to create the first tomato sauce. People living on the perimeter of the Mediterranean adored the new food, perhaps in part because of its aura of mystery, and a developing cuisine flourished around the tomate. The Spaniards took the seeds into Asia and it continued to become a major player in the diets of many nationalities.
That tomatoes were titillating, perhaps as oysters are today, made way for a darker image. Membership in the nightshade family didn’t help. By 1544, the plant was aligned with mandrake, henbane, and belladonna, all extremely poisonous plants, by Italian herbalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli, in his Commentaries on the Six Books of Dios-corides.
The unbecoming image was actually true—in fact, all parts of the tomato plant except the fruits are toxic and cause severe digestive upset. Though fully ripe tomatoes have virtually no alkaloid toxin, a Cornell University study says less than two ounces of tomato leaves are likely lethal for an adult.
So, let’s make a pact to not graze on tomato leaves in the garden.
The lush, scarlet image of the tomato was too much for our Puritan forefathers and a little resistance was in order. At first, Missourians used tomatoes primarily as a remedy for not-so-appetizing pustules.
Tomato suspicion lingered until 1820, or possibly 1830, when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey, declared he would eat a bushel on the courthouse steps. In this (possibly tall) tale, his doctor predicted frothing at the mouth and tortured death. Two thousand people came to watch. Though Thomas Jefferson grew the plant at Monticello in 1781, people were not believers until Johnson ate the tomatoes publicly without dying.
Talk about Show-Me philosophy in play.
Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho
From Chef Mike Odette, Sycamore Restaurant, Columbia, Mo.
3 pounds heirloom tomatoes, diced (about 2 quarts)
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced small (about 2 cups)
½ medium onion, diced small (about 1 cup)
2 ribs celery, diced small (about 1 cup)
1 quart bottled tomato juice
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
Combine all ingredients in a one-gallon, non-
reactive (plastic, glass, or stainless) container,
such as a pitcher. Using an immersion blender,
zap the gazpacho a few times until desired
consistency is reached. Gazpacho may be
served smooth, like a beverage, or chunky
Nina Furstenau teaches food writing in the Science and Agricultural Journalism program at the University of Missouri. She is the author of “Savor Missouri, River Hill Country Food and Wine” and “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland,” In addition to this blog, she writes “A Spiced Life,” for the Columbia Tribune at http://www.columbiatribune.com/arts_life/food/ and blogs at http://www.missourilife.com/blogs/savor-missouri