Here in the United States, especially the Midwest, we are in love with the tomato. A fruit that's uses continue to expand with the imagination of culinary pioneers everywhere. Interestingly enough, during our nations founding the tomato was not feeling the love that the multitudes give it today. There are many reasons for this, some based on religion while others were based on flawed botanical identification. While we were turning Boston Harbor into the world's largest tea cup, the natives of Central and South America, the Spanish, the Italians, and even the French were enjoying all the culinary delights that the tomato had to offer.
Let's look at the Latin name given to the tomato subspecies. Lycopersicon. Lyco meaning "wolf" and periscon meaning "peach." You might be wondering why on earth the tomato was essentially dubbed a "wolf peach." It had to do with its classification with the same family as the deadly nightshades and wolf banes. All throughout Medieval Europe into the late 19th century both wolf bane and nightshade was thought to either keep werewolves at bay or conjure them up, depending on which spell or incantation you preferred.
So the earliest Americans grew them in their gardens and around their homes as both a decoration and to keep all sorts of evil and undesirable things at bay. Never for eating, though. Many thought them to be poisonous, hallucinogenic, or even an aphrodisiac. While most of the citizens of our young nation where not practicing puritans, almost all the churches derived and reformed from puritan roots. So even if you did not believe that the tomato would cause your certain death or to see pink elephants, it would still be a sin to consume one based on it's aphrodisiatic side effects. Who is to blame for the tomato getting such a bad rap? Mainly botanists and the French language. Botanists identified it as nightshade and the French word for tomato at that time was pomme d’amore, Apple of Love. The botanical misrepresentation is very simple and easy to understand. A tomato plant is a nightshade, but the fruit is of course edible. Their chemical make up is similar, and yes, tomato leaves and stems are toxic. Going back to the French, our earliest citizens already did not trust the tomato and evidently took everything the french said literally. Their puritan roots wanted nothing to do with an apple that would invoke love. The thing is, it is not really the fault of the French either, they actually mispronounced the word that the Spanish have for the tomato which is pome dei Moro or The Moor Apple.
So who helped seat the wonderful red, yellow, purple, pink, white fruit place here in the United States? The credit usually goes to two people. Thomas Jefferson and Colonel Robert Johnson. Most knowledge of Thomas Jefferson does not include his affinity for growing tomatoes. His daughters used them in various recipes, including soups and sauces, including a sauce very similar to ketchup. That was one way early Americans were comfortable eating the tomato, after being processed and boiled and spiced into something that only partially revealed the tomato. Thomas Jefferson even developed his own varieties. This hobby led him to also tout the health benefits of the delicious fruit. In 1830, Colonel Johnson stood upon the steps of a courthouse and ate a basket full of tomatoes in front a large crowd. They all waited to watch him convulse in agony, or babel like a madman from the immediate loss of thought and mind he would suffer. Some clutched hold to their wives or daughters in fear that it would drive him into a wicked frenzy for the fairer sex. A few even feared he would change into a werewolf right there on the courthouse steps. None of those things happened and the Tomato's future in America was secured. The odd thing is that while tomatoes were being grown and traded in Mexico, all of the tomatoes that came to the colonies took a very long route, South America via Europe and then to the Thirteen Colonies.
So is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Scientifically speaking it is a fruit or actually a berry. So why do so many Americans still consider it a vegetable? You can thank Uncle Sam and his propensity for taxation. In the late 1800's there was a tariff on all vegetables, but not on fruit. However, despite it's classification, the government began imposing this tax on tomato importers. Consequently, they sued. The end result? The US Supreme Court ruled the tomato a vegetable and continued taxing what was becoming a very popular commodity.
Besides being delicious, tomatoes are an extremely rich source of Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that fights everything from heart disease to cancer. And its vitamins, minerals, and nutrients? Here is a list from greatest to least:
vitamin C33% biotin24%molybdenum20%vitamin K16%potassium12%copper12%manganese11%fiber9%vitamin A8%vitamin B68%vitamin B37%folate7%phosphorus6%vitamin B16%vitamin E6%magnesium5%chromium4%iron3%zinc3%choline3%pantothenic acid3%protein (source: www.whfoods.org)
Maybe the next time you order a salad or plant a tomato plant in your garden, you will have a greater appreciation for the journey that tomato made for you!