You Say To-mah-toe
Customers who have followed the Local Greens’ newsletter since the start of this year will remember that swede is one of my less preferred vegetables. I wish I could say that I love all the veg equally, but alas, there are clear favourites. For me, the best part of the veg year is when the juicy, sweet tomato is in season. It’s my anti-swede; the crop that inspires me and brings unbridled joy to my kitchen. As the days of summer and its peak season draw to a close, a love letter to the tomato and all it’s bright goodness is overdue.
There was a TV ad when I was growing up for a pasta brand that featured a little Italian girl explaining how she loved pasta, but didn’t like tomato sauce at all. This filled me with horror. As a young girl of Italian heritage as well, I didn’t know you could not like tomatoes. They were in everything: Sunday pasta dinners, crusty sandwiches, pizza, salads of every variety, smothered chicken cutlets and anything Parmigana or topped with mozzarella. I don’t think a day went by without some form of tomato passing my lips. As a teenager, I soon added ketchup to my favourite forms of tomato (questionably so) and saw any preparation of potato as a vehicle to consume as much of this condiment as possible. Cooked, raw, baked, blended, chopped, canned, stewed, juiced or jammed – there was no method of eating a tomato that I did not love.
My appreciation for this fruit-come-vegetable was long imbued in my Italian DNA. I have vivid childhood memories of my grandfather tending to leggy plants in his garden, defending them against invading squirrels and eager birds that couldn’t wait to steal away with a ripe fruit. One incident is an indelible mark on my upbringing. At about four-years-old, I stole away to my grandpa’s garden thinking I would help him and pick all of the tomatoes so he didn’t have to. This would have been a welcomed and useful endeavour, but for one problem: all of the tomatoes I picked were green. There are few furies like that of an Italian pensioner realizing the pride of his garden was decimated by his granddaughter. To say he was angry would be a gross understatement. Nearly four decades later, I maintain my innocence (clearly, a lapse in adult supervision takes the real blame) and the smell of tomato plants will always remind me of my nonno.
Why is the tomato ubiquitous in so many cuisines and from where does its culinary adulation originate? Diving into botanical facts, the genus Lycopersicon encompasses the “wild tomato” and the modern cultivated varieties. It is part of the Solanaceae family – commonly known as nightshades. In the past, the tomato, and its nightshade cousins tomatillo, aubergine, bell pepper and chili pepper, were considered poisonous in Britain. Perhaps this was due to their foreign origin (or poor understanding of 18th century lead poisoning). Tomatoes are descended from the home of the other half of my family, South America (they really are in my DNA). The Aztec civilization domesticated the ‘tomatl’ plant and began humanity’s great love affair with cooking the fruit. Cultivation was prevalent throughout Mexico and Mesoamerica from as early as 500 B.C. It is thought the Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to bring the tomato across the Atlantic, and thus introduce them to Spanish and Italian cuisine, where it thrived in the Mediterranean climate. The Spanish conquest of the Philippines delivered the seeds to Asia, where it quickly spread to China. India, the Middle East and North Africa were introduced to the species by their trade links with and colonization by European empires; the fruit is now an essential component to many dishes endemic to those regions. From masala to shakshuka, mechado to salsa, fattoush to passata, global cuisine has taken hold of the tomato and is not letting go.
I am not alone in my exultation for the tomato. It is the official state vegetable of New Jersey, coincidentally also the American state where I grew up. Canada has attempted to pass legislation marking 15 July as Tomato Day. You can sign up to the World Tomato Society and receive breaking news on tomato trends. The French once called it the pomme d'amour. Buñol, Spain hosts an annual, all encompassing village tomato fight called La Tomatina, and I am eyeing up a 2021 trip to join in. If you can’t wait that long to revel in tomato glory, The British Tomato Grower’s Association is holding their annual conference virtually this year on September 24th, and registration is free. You may look up film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or reference the Gershwins’ famous idiom pitting British against American pronunciation. We haven’t even touched upon the benefits of lycopene and the tomato’s classification as a botanical chameleon straddling the world of fruit and vegetable. As the chef Ferran Adrià Acosta has said, “You need an entire life just to know about tomatoes.”
A tomato is summer sun made edible. The meaty Marmande and oozing Black Russian varieties in the veg bags these past few weeks I ate very simply: sliced, on a plate, with a sprinkling of sea salt, preferably for breakfast, but also as a snack, or also for lunch, or for dinner, or just because they’re there. It thrills me to see a bowl of varied colours, a cornucopia of shapes and sizes. Red, green, yellow, black or striped, on the vine or off, cherry, plum, beefsteak or grape, I rejoice in them all. Be kind to your tomatoes, and please always keep them out of the refrigerator, and never eat them out of season. They never last long enough in my home to even consider going off. To all my fellow tomato enthusiasts, feast in these final weeks when autumn hangs in the air and the last fruits blush into colour. It is a cold winter ahead without my favorite fruit, but summer and another season is always sure to follow.