The tomato’s unique rise to popularity

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tomatoes

In the mornings during the summer, I like to walk through my vegetable plants and flowers. I check on how they’re growing and water them regularly. 

I watched my tomato plants grow up taller than me. I was impressed with their vitality and robust appearance. Some of the plants grew as volunteer starts from last year; other plants I purchased from a greenhouse. Certainly, they would produce a lot of juicy tomatoes. 

My assumption was wrong. Now, it’s the beginning of August and I’ve only had one tomato. It was beautiful and delicious. We each had one bite. 

As I walk along looking at green orbs on the plants, I am reminded of many sayings. A watched pot never boils. Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet. It takes time to build castles. Green tomatoes take forever to ripen. Add that one to the list. 

I think I am trying to make up for the lost time. As a child, I wasn’t terribly picky as an eater, but I was consistent. I refused to eat tomatoes. Not a bite, sliver or nibble. I ate everything derived from tomatoes, but definitely not fresh. 

History lesson

As history tells it, I wasn’t the only one slightly put off by tomatoes during the first encounter. It is believed that tomatoes growing in the wild originated in Peru. Wild tomatoes can still be found in many areas in the Andes. Native people gathered and ate the fresh fruit in many dishes. 

Tomatoes were later cultivated in South America and eventually grown in Mexico. Spanish conquistadors brought the plant back to Spain. When tomatoes reached the European region, they had mixed reviews. 

The plant closely resembled another deadly nightshade plant. The tomato plant was given a name meaning “Wolf’s Peach” referring to the round shape and a folk belief that eating nightshades could conjure the return of a werewolf. The name was hardly good marketing. Most people were overly cautious about eating it. 

During colonial times, tomatoes arrived in a roundabout fashion. Instead of traveling north from Mexico, tomato plants were brought from Europe and used for decorative purposes. 

Jefferson shift

Some people believe the shift from using tomatoes as decoration to delicacy began with Thomas Jefferson. The bulk of the theory is that tomatoes were grown on the grounds of his home at Monticello and used in multiple recipes including gumbo. 

By the 1830s, tomatoes were generally accepted and eaten in multiple ways. However, the earliest form of eating tomatoes in the U.S., and most popular, was in the form of ketchup. The word catsup comes from a Chinese word meaning spiced sauce. Different spices along with mushrooms and anchovies were traditional ingredients. 

Americans not only changed the spelling to ketchup but also changed the main ingredient to tomatoes. Mary Randolph, a cousin to Thomas Jefferson, included a tomato ketchup recipe in her popular cookbook published in 1824. 

My first misconception was that tomatoes came from Italy. I assumed not only the wrong country but also the wrong continent. My second misconception was that Americans enjoyed juicy tomatoes in their freshest form, right off the vine. 

With an unnatural inclination toward processed foods, Americans consumed ketchup heartily before their fresher counterparts. 

Eating fresh

My biggest mistake was avoiding fresh tomatoes for the first two decades of my life. Eating fresh salsa is what flipped the switch for me. If I could love fresh salsa, then surely I could eat plain tomatoes. 

I was opened to a new culinary world. Cue BLT sandwiches and margherita pizzas. Fresh mozzarella paired with cherry tomatoes was a new favorite. 

I couldn’t let go of all my innate weirdness. I have to slice cherry tomatoes. I don’t like when they pop and burst. My standards say grapes are fine, but cherry tomatoes are not. Some things I cannot explain. 

With a keen eye and a hungry belly, I keep watching for any signs of ripeness on the vines. Tomatoes can be planted outside two weeks after the last frost date. For my area, that would mean planting in the third week of May. We missed that date by two weeks.

 I wouldn’t think that two weeks would make that much of a difference, but I am willing to try it and see how things turn out next year. I am also researching compost tea and fertilizers. 

As for now, I am on the lookout for mature fruit, fully aware that as usual, all the tomatoes will ripen at once within a 2-3 week window before the first frost. 

Maybe this year in addition to marinara I will muster up all my American pride and try my luck at a homemade ketchup recipe.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

1 COMMENT

  1. You should check your soil ph and maybe apply some kind of fertilizer as I imagine you haven’t lately. If you only have 1 tomato at this point, odds are your plant’s environment needs some help.

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