Reflections in Nature: Writer: Tomatoes not thought of as a food until after Civil War

BILL BOWER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Containers of tomatoes fill the shelves at this roadside farmers market.

At this time of the year, my wife Mary Alice enjoys going to farm markets, where she buys flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables. Did I mention she buys flowers?

Although she is a good and varied cook, my favorite meal is just an ordinary hamburger, with lettuce, thick slices of tomato and onion.

Contrary to popular belief, the tomato is not a vegetable but a fruit used as a vegetable. We seldom think of tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and squash as fruits but they are.

Our word vegetable is used when referring to any part of a plant used for food, including leaves (cabbage), stalks (celery), roots (carrots), underground stems (white potatoes), flowers (broccoli), buds (Brussel sprouts) or the seeds themselves, minus the protective casings (peanuts and beans).

The tomato plant, which is a native of South America, was grown by the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs. The plant was taken to Spain and eventually made its way across the Strait of Gibraltar. The tomato was planted in Morocco, and from there it was taken to Italy, where it was known as pomo del mori.

In France, the tomato was introduced as an aphrodisiac and called pomme d’amou, meaning apple of love.

Next, the tomato was taken across the channel and into England, where it was called the love apple. From England, it traveled back across the Atlantic Ocean to the North American Continent.

Throughout the tomato’s travels, it was never used as food.

Thomas Jefferson, who raised tomatoes at Mount Vernon, was one of the few people who grew them as a food crop.

By the 1830s, the tomato was becoming a valuable food crop in America; however, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it really became popular. The reason the tomato was not originally used as food and only grown as a decorative garden shrub is because it is a relative of the deadly nightshade.

The name tomato comes from the Aztec word tomat, which the Spanish changed to tomate, and the English changed it to tomato.

In the book “Dangerous Plants” by John Tampion, there is a list of foods that commonly cause allergic response, and the tomato is on this list. However, the book states that by cooking tomatoes, allergenicity is reduced in all cases.

My mother loved tomatoes but when eating one picked directly from the garden, she broke out in hives; however, she had no problem when eating cooked tomatoes.

The book’s list also includes many of our cereals, vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs and oils.

The tomato is not hard to grow; however, it is definitely a warm-season crop. Tomato plants are started by seeds in greenhouses and transplanted six to eight weeks later.

In small gardens, tomato plants are trained to grow on stakes. Now, here is something to ponder: staking increases the yield per acre but decreases the yield per plant.

No column on tomatoes would be complete without mentioning the spelling of the word ketchup. In the west, the spelling is catsup while here in the east, it is ketchup.

The name originated in the Orient from a word pronounced as kayshup but often spelled catsup or ketchup. Webster lists it as ketchup but states it can also be spelled catch’up and cat’sup.

The United States Department of Agriculture has established two grades: U.S. Grade A (or U.S. Fancy) and U.S. Grade C (or U.S. Standard). These grades are based on color, consistency, flavor and purity.

Every year the Environmental Working Group compiles a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue. These foods are known as the Dirty Dozen. In 2017, tomatoes were No. 10 on the list and cherry tomatoes No. 14. Though it has not been proven that eating organic foods has overall health benefits, the EWG suggests people should buy organic tomatoes when possible.

It was only 200 years ago that tomatoes were thought to be poisonous here in the United States. Now, tomatoes are the fourth most popular fresh-market vegetable behind potatoes, lettuce and onions.

One must wonder why some plants are poisonous and others are edible. Most recent studies have shown that plants contain toxic ingredients to deter animals from eating them.

Nearly all poisons found in plants are of a secondary compound, meaning that the poison is not a substance essential to the life of the plant. Often plants in a single family will all possess a certain type of poisonous ingredient. The nightshade family is a good example of this.

However, not every member of the poisonous plant family or every part of a single poisonous plant need actually contain the poisonous ingredient.

For example, I love rhubarb pie. The rhubarb (stalk) itself is not poisonous but the leaves are highly toxic. The leaves contain dangerous amounts of oxalic acid and soluble oxalate and have caused death when eaten as a vegetable, even when small quantities were consumed. Yet rhubarb remains a common garden plant.

Well, it’s almost lunch time and Mary Alice said she was going to make me a Lebanon bologna sandwich, with big slices of tomato.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

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