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My Love Affair with the Tomato

By Mari Wallace

Americans would say I’ve developed a green thumb; the Brits say I have green fingers.

Someone once said, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy…and you get tomatoes.” I think that pretty much sums up why I do it – all those hours spent digging, weeding, feeding, composting, pruning, watering – losing myself in these chores, enjoying the great outdoors…and then the reward: those sweet, juicy tomatoes.

I call myself a transplanted New Yorker (the gardening pun is intentional), having moved to England many years ago. It was when my English husband, Alan, and I relocated to the Sussex countryside that the gardening bug bit me. Americans would say I’ve developed a green thumb; the Brits say I have green fingers. But as far as I’m concerned, I happily use both of my hands and all of the digits on them to make things grow.

Although my mother was a keen gardener, she was only interested in flowers, never vegetables. Alan introduced me to the joy that comes from growing things you can eat. This is when my love affair with the tomato began. It’s also when I started calling it a “to-mah-to” – echoing those delightful Gershwin lyrics from the Astaire/Roger’s movie, Shall We Dance, “You say to-mah-to and I say to-may-to.”

I always knew that tomatoes were nutritious. The list is long – vitamins A, C, E and K, plus potassium and dietary fiber. They’re low in cholesterol and calories, too, and their sweetness satisfies a candy craving. I didn’t need any more convincing than that.

Tomatoes were on the very top of my list when Alan created a vegetable bed in our garden. Unfortunately, because English summers are very variable, with weeks that are often cool and cloudy, not all of the tomatoes ripened by the fall, which was very disappointing. Not to be defeated by the vagaries of English weather, Alan built a greenhouse so that I could successfully grow many varieties of tomato. These have included, over the years, Shirley, Moneymaker, Gardeners Delight, Beefsteak, Alicante, Sungold… But it was a totally serendipitous purchase of a tomato plant called Luciebell that further ensured my love affair with the tomato. I came upon it in a very unlikely place – a large store that’s rather like Walmart. These Luciebell tomatoes proved to be just wonderful – petite (so easy to pop into one’s mouth) and super sweet. As a good garden guru, I scooped out some seeds from a couple of my Luciebells, dried and stored them, ready for planting the next spring. This has been my annual ritual, with great results.

I find the history of the tomato fascinating. They originated in South America. The Aztecs and Incas cultivated them as early as 700 A.D. The Aztecs gave them the name tomatl which the Spanish, who conquered and settled in Latin America, changed to tomate…from which we get tomato. Even now, wild ones can be found in the Andes.

During colonial times, people shunned tomatoes because, as members of the same family as deadly nightshade, they were thought to be poisonous. However, it’s been documented that Thomas Jefferson grew them, and his daughters and granddaughters used them in recipes such as gumbo soup.

When the tomato was introduced to Europeans, there was again controversy about its possible toxicity. The reality was that the upper classes ate off pewter plates, which had a high lead content. The tomato’s natural acidity would leach into the lead and result in sickness and even death. In contrast, poorer people, who could only afford wooden plates if any plates at all, had no problems with the tomato. The turning point was the “invention” of the pizza in Naples in 1880 which made the tomato popular in Europe as well as America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that each of us consumes close to 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes each year.

In making it their state vegetable, the residents of New Jersey have given the tomato the status it deserves. In Arkansas, it’s not only the state vegetable but also the state fruit. Yes, the tomato is technically a fruit because it develops from the fertilized ovary of a flower and has seeds. I read somewhere that “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”

We have friends – though, perhaps, they’re now ex-friends – whose names are Phil and Sue. When we invited them to dinner for the first time, I phoned in advance to ask if there was anything they were allergic to or particularly disliked. No allergies, but Sue told me she disliked salad, and Phil disliked fish. Very straightforward – or so I thought. I planned the menu accordingly. Our appetizer was bruschetta containing garlic, basil and tomatoes – all from our garden. The main dish was chicken with rice. Accompaniments were French climbing beans and home-made ratatouille – with garlic, basil, onions, peppers, eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes – again, everything from our garden.

When I served the appetizer, Phil asked, “Is there garlic in this?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied. “It’s Italian…and the garlic is from our garden,” I added proudly.

“Sorry, but I don’t eat anything with garlic.”

I was crestfallen. And then annoyed. They’d told me about the fish and the salad, but why not the garlic?

“And I’m afraid I don’t eat tomatoes,” Sue chimed in.

Somehow I’d assumed that her antipathy to salad was aimed at those flavorless chunks of lettuce – not flavorfull tomatoes.

So, naturally, when I served the main course, neither of them would touch the ratatouille, because of the garlic and the tomatoes.

When it came to the dessert, I held my breath. I’d made sherbet with our home-grown strawberries and baked a New York-style cheesecake. At least they didn’t spring on me that they were lactose intolerant!

They were profuse in their thanks when they left later that evening but I was not a happy bunny.

Rest assured, Sue and Phil’s rejection of the tomato had not fazed me in the least.

But I promise you they will never be invited to dinner at our house…ever again.

Comments

2 responses to “My Love Affair with the Tomato

  1. What I would give for a ripe, juicy, homegrown tomato right now! Information and entertaining essay. 🙂

  2. Mari, your story was delightful and informative. My husband grows enough tomatoes for us, the neighbors and the wild critters.

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