THE LORE, LEGENDS AND LEGITIMACY surrounding the tomato are about as varied as the environments in which it is found. Used in Central American cooking since at least 500BC, it was considered toxic by Europeans until well into the sixteenth century; some American references still labeled it poisonous into the nineteenth century. Its Latin name translates as wolf apple (a reference to its poisonous qualities), but the French called it the love apple or golden apple (one a reference to its effect as an aphrodisiac, the other to its color). The tomato is the official state vegetable of New Jersey, but it’s the official state fruit of Ohio and Tennessee. In Arkansas, it’s both the official state vegetable and the official state fruit.
Vegetable or fruit? Poison or aphrodisiac? Red or yellow? The first juicy, ripe tomato picked from the garden or arrived at the farmers’ market defines summer.
Let’s start at the beginning. The nightshade family of plants (the Solanaceae) encompasses more than 2,700 species, many of which produce highly potent alkaloids, including the strongest anticholinergics on the planet. (The effects of these compounds on the central nervous system can range from relaxation or sedation to hallucinations to death.) In spite of, or perhaps because of this, the nightshade family includes a number of economically important plants used as food, as sources of narcotics, or as medicines. Potatoes, eggplants, chile peppers and tobacco are nightshades. So is Solanum lycopersicum, the tomato.
The tomato (today the most widely eaten fruit in the world) originated in the Andes Mountains of South America. It’s generally accepted that the Aztecs domesticated thetomatl plant and that Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés probably introduced it to Europe after he captured the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519 and found the plants growing in the gardens there. The Spanish also introduced tomatoes to their Caribbean colonies and to the Philippines, from where they spread throughout Asia.
Tomatoes adapted well to the mild Mediterranean climate but initially were grown strictly as ornamentals—prized for their beauty but feared for their toxicity. (All parts of the tomato except the fruit are, in fact, toxic.) They were first grown in England in 1554 (planted by Patrick Bellow, of Castletown), but John Gerard, another early cultivator and author of a well-known herbal guide, perpetuated the belief that tomatoes were poisonous by declaring them “of ranke and stinking savour” that “yeeld very little nourishment to the body.”
Don't Make it a Federal Case
Under the Tariff Act of 1883, vegetables imported to the U.S. were subject to a 10 percent import tax, though fruit was not. So, when John Nix’s imported West Indian tomatoes were taxed, he sued customs official Edward Hedden, insisting his tomatoes were, in fact, fruit and the tariff didn’t apply. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that, science be damned, the tomato is a vegetable. The Court determined that although “botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine,” the tomato is a vegetable because it’s “usually served at dinner . . . and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” Illustrating just how far science has advanced in federal corridor, the USDA in 1981 declared ketchup a vegetable in order to justify federal budget cuts to school lunch programs. In 2005, the New Jersey legislature cited the nineteenth-century Nix v. Hedden decision as the basis for a bill designating the tomato its official state vegetable.
Botanists label the seed-bearing part of a plant a fruit; that's what a tomato is, as are cucumbers, butternut squash and pea pods. Vegetables, on the other hand, comprise any other edible (nonfruit) part of a plant (leaves, roots, stems, tubers, bulbs and flowers). Amy Goldman offers a compromise of definition: "I call the tomato a 'fruit/vegetable'—the fruit of a herbaceous plant—while 'fruit' is the fruit of a tree." Simple enough, though still likely to confuse members of Congress, presidents and Supreme Court justices.
Tomatoes were widely consumed in Europe by the 1700s, but by then they had garnered the unfortunate label poison apple in England—the tomato’s acidic juice leached lead from the pewter plates used by the upper class, resulting in sometimes-fatal lead poisoning. (Alas, no such malady afflicted the peasants—they dined on wooden plates—though they shied away from tomatoes because they weren’t as filling as other options.) In Italy, the popularity of tomatoes was capped in 1889 (legend has it), when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita, visiting Naples, ordered pizzas from the city’s Pizzeria Brandi (originally Da Pietro pizzeria, founded in 1760) and were served one topped with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, mimicking the colors of the Italian flag. There’s no record of whether this first pizza Margherita was eat-in or takeout.
Modern tomatoes are most commonly red, but also may be green, white, yellow, pink, purple—even black. There are two kinds of tomatoes: hybrids and heirlooms. Breeders create hybrids by intentionally cross-pollinating two different varieties to produce a plant that contains the best or most desirable characteristics of each—large size, shape, yield, flavor, disease resistance, or, as in the case of mass-market tomatoes, longer shelf life. (“Hybridization” mimics a natural process; it’s not “genetic modification” in the industrial agriculture sense.)
Botanists label the seed-bearing part of a plant a fruit; that’s what a tomato is, as are cucumbers, butternut squash and pea pods. Vegetables, on the other hand, comprise any other edible (nonfruit) part of a plant (leaves, roots, stems, tubers, bulbs and flowers). Amy Goldman offers a compromise definition: “I call the tomato a ‘fruit/vegetable’—the fruit of a herbaceous plant—while ‘fruit’ is the fruit of a tree.” Simple enough, though still likely to confuse members of Congress, presidents and Supreme Court judges.
Heirloom varieties, on the other hand, come from a single source that may have adapted itself over many generations to a specific location, climate or environment, and heirloom tomatoes cover the spectrum from interesting and beautiful to eccentric and ugly. They are “open-pollinated” (pollinated by natural mechanisms like birds, insects or wind) and though they may be erratic in terms of seasonality, size and yield, because the seeds represent the genetics of only a single variety, they “breed true.” For this reason, only heirlooms can be used for seed saving. (Hybrids do not breed true because there’s no way to assure the combination of genes that produced the parent plant will be duplicated exactly in the second generation—there’s no telling what kind of fruit, if any, will be produced.) Hybrids are more predictable in harvest timing, appearance and size, but most lack the intensity and variety of flavors available with heirlooms.
The doyenne of the heirloom tomato, Amy Goldman, lives in Rhinebeck, where she grows 500 tomato plants of 250 varieties. She’s the author of the definitive work on the subject, The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table—Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World's Most Beautiful Fruit (Bloomsbury, 2008; $37.50, hardcover), with photographs by Victor Schrager. The book moves easily through the science, selection, cultivation and preparation of heirloom tomatoes without a hint of pretention—“This tomato tastes so good, you’ll plotz,” is her description of Burpee’s Gold, for example.
Goldman has, of course, favorite tomatoes, as well as varieties she’d recommend for Hudson Valley growers. Favorite cherry tomatoes include her own Green Doctor (discovered in her garden in 2002 and available from Seed Savers Exchange), and the cascading, “yolk-yellow” Blondköpfchen, which she says is “incomparable” for both flower arrangements and yellow salsa.
Her favorite beefsteaks include the large, luscious Gold Medal (“well-reviewed by tomato cognoscenti”); the rich, full-flavored Yellow Brandywine (“on everyone’s list of favorites”); huge and juicy Green Giant (“the best-tasting green-when-ripe beefsteak”); the “divinely sweet,” aptly named Great White (“the greatest” of the white tomatoes). And there’s Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter—big, thick, meaty, juicy fruits that can weigh more than three pounds, best when cut into thick slabs and sprinkled with sea salt. (”Mortgage lifter” is a generic name for big, heirloom tomatoes whose sale is so profitable the seller could pay off a mortgage. Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter is named for Charlie Byles, owner in the 1940s of a truck repair shop at the base of a mountain. Trucks attempting to climb the steep grade overheated and rolled right back down to the shop for radiator repairs. Byles sold his tomato plants to them for $1 each and was able to pay off his $6,000 mortgage in six years.)
As for growing tips, “The greatest gift you can offer your plants is a plot situated in full sun,” Goldman stresses. She believes the biggest mistake gardeners make is overcrowding—wide spacing increases air circulation and productivity and reduces the likelihood of disease. (Her tomatoes are planted five feet apart in rows seven feet apart.) She mulches (preferring black plastic and brown ground cloth), and is vigilant about pruning. She stakes and cages her plants rather then letting them sprawl over the ground. If space is not an issue and you only want to grow one kind of tomato, Goldman recommends Sara’s Galapagos, a sweet, currant-type tomato with a prolific growth habit, featuring “lots of flavor in a little package.”
If you don’t, or can’t, grow your own tomatoes, many Hudson Valley farms sell heirloom varieties directly on the farm or at local farmers’ markets. Good prospects include Taliaferro Farms in New Paltz, Montgomery Orchards in Red Hook, Four Wind Farms in Gardiner, and Hepworth Farms in Milton.
The first rule of storing tomatoes is to keep them out of the refrigerator—they’ll quickly become mushy and flavorless. Leave them unwashed, at room temperature and out of direct sunlight. Unripe tomatoes can be kept in a paper bag until ripened; they’re also easily preserved by canning or sun-drying. Raw tomatoes are high in vitamin C and are blessed with lycopene, a natural antioxidant that some studies suggest may help prevent cancer and heart disease. Cooking tomatoes actually increases lycopene content, though raw tomatoes are higher in vitamin C. (To cover your bases, eat tomatoes both ways.)
Say tomato (or, if you must, tomahto) and Italian cuisine naturally comes to mind—raw in salads and as a topping for bruschetta or cooked into sauces for pastas, pizza or meatballs. They’re also a primary ingredient in Mexican salsa, Indian chutneys, Spanish gazpacho and, of course, in Ronald Reagan’s “All-America vegetable”—ketchup. Goldman’s favorite paste tomatoes include Speckled Roman (a chance cross of two plum tomatoes from the garden of vegetable collector extraordinaire John Swenson); Super Italian Paste (perfect for “sweet-as-sugar and savory tomato sauce”); Jersey Devil (a super-big sauce tomato); Amish Paste (selected for Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a list of foods facing extinction); Goldman’s Italian American (named for Goldman’s father’s Brooklyn grocery store); San Marzano (the classic Italian canning tomato); and Orange Banana (“fruity and rich when oven-roasted, puréed or made into an ambrosial sauce.”)
Of course, you’ll need something to help wash all this down. Tomato juice is a healthy beverage straight-up; spiked with vodka and spices, it makes a brunch-friendly Bloody Mary cocktail. Goldman offers a recipe for a Thai tomato cocktail that includes lemongrass, Thai hot chile, Thai basil, fresh ginger and vodka—she promises the libation “will transport you and your guests to Thailand—or to some other altered state.”