Tomatoes: Q & A

By Randy Jackson

Here’s a question that will brighten anyone’s day: “Hey, do you want a toasted tomato sandwich?” Of course you do, everyone does.

Ah, the tomato. We love them, but take them for granted. For example, when we listen to the lyrics of Guy Clark’s song “Homegrown Tomatoes” –

Only two things that money can’t buy –
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes –

we think, “Yeah, that’s true.” Nobody would sing about true love and an onion or bok choy. When you take something you love for granted, like the tomato, one day you wake up realizing you know almost nothing about it, and curiosity is aroused.

Questions abound: Where do tomatoes originate? Are tomatoes a fruit or vegetable? How many tomato varieties are there? Are tomatoes the most consumed thing ever? How big can a tomato get? What’s the weirdest shaped tomato ever? And the perennial question: Where could I go for a really good tomato fight?

The tomato is thought to have originated in pre-Inca Peru. Back then it was the size of a garden pea. Over the hundreds of years of pre-conquest Mesoamerican civilizations, a variety of types and sizes of tomatoes were cultivated. The Aztec (Nahuatl) word for the green tomato was tomatl (Spanish, tomate) and this is the word that stuck. Good thing too, because the Nahuatl word for the red tomato was xitomatl, which seems less marketable.

It was the Spanish who spread the tomato around the world. In Europe, documents mention the tomato as early as the 1540’s. For about 200 years, the tomato was seen as an ornamental plant for gardens and fruit-bowl displays, as it was generally considered poisonous in Europe. The first tomato recipe we have on record is 1692. But it took another 100 years before the Italians created the tomato sauce for pasta. The rest, as they say, is history.

Is the tomato a fruit or vegetable? Both really. Botanists classify it as a fruit. Nutritionists consider it a vegetable. This is because it is more savoury than sweet, and is often used in salads, not in desserts like most fruits. In 1893, the US Supreme Court declared the tomato a vegetable for tax purposes. Back then vegetables were subject to import duties, while fruits were not. It seems that the US Supreme Court changes its mind on some things, but has never re-addressed their tomato decision.

My guess was that the tomato would be the most eaten fruit/vegetable in the world. What with salsa, pasta and pizza sauces, ketchup, BLT’s, salads, soups, and on every hamburger ever eaten, what could top that? Well, potatoes. At least by weight and acres cultivated. However, before the potato can gloat over its top spot, we should recognize that most potatoes are used for French fries – and what is most often put on French fries? Exactly. Incidentally, potato chips are the second biggest use of the potato, and in Canada we have ketchup-flavoured potato chips – so there, potato!

There are over 10,000 varieties of tomatoes in the world. Most of these varieties are cross-breeds. About 3,000 varieties are considered “heirloom” tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are a sort of “purebred” tomato, traceable to a single genetic plant line. When it comes to the most popular tomato, beefsteak tomatoes seems to top most lists followed by the Cherokee Purple (heirloom tomato), and then Roma (paste) and cherry varieties.

The Guiness World Book of Record has the largest tomato weighing in at 4.9 kilograms (10 pounds 12 oz), with a circumference of 84 centimetres (33 inches). It was grown by Dan Sutherland in Walla Walla, Washington, in 2020. This tomato was the variety Domingo, which is a type of beefsteak tomato. And speaking of records, 121 is the largest number of tomatoes grown on a single vine. Possibly more interesting are the photos of weirdly shaped tomatoes that can be found on the internet. Often tomatoes grow pointed appendages out of their mostly symmetrical shapes. As a result, noses, pointy ears and penises are easily imagined. One tomato found in a British garden looked like the head of Adolf Hitler.

This off-beat aspect of tomatoes is topped by a festival in the town of Buñol, Spain, which holds an annual festival called La Tomatina. Forty to fifty thousand people crowd into this Spanish town for the world’s largest food fight. The only food thrown is tomatoes. You need a ticket to participate in La Tomatina, and only 22,000 tickets will be sold for the 2022 event (a ticket is 12 Euros or 250 Mexican pesos). The event will be held on August 31, 2022. About 100 tonnes of over-ripe tomatoes are provided for throwing at other participants in the town square. There are a few rules – most important is to squish the tomato before you throw it. Two words come to mind: stupidity and messy. As for being messy, the city is well prepared for the cleanup with street washers and fire-hoses all pre-stationed and ready to go after the event. Because tomatoes are acidic, the streets, buildings, statutes, and benches all gleam in spectacular cleanliness after the cleanup.

No longer will I take the tomato for granted. Already I am on the hunt for a Cherokee Purple. Of course, there are Brandywine Pink, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Gold Medal, Big Rainbow, Lemon Boy, Mr. Stripey, White Beauty … No luck yet, but I picked up some Yellow Pear tomatoes yesterday and tried them in a toasted tomato sandwich (lovely).

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