Sunday Food: Tomatoes
(Picture courtesy of Elliot Gllflx at flickr.com.)
It’s everywhere these days, tomatoes are in season and we almost always have a plant growing in a pot if not in the garden. You probably will see bins of them in your grocery store, and all varieties out there for you to yearn for.
Once in our eating past, though, the tomato was considered quite poison. Its reputation was terrible, and for aeons the lovely fruits went to waste.
A nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit.
Around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato grew widespread in popularity in Europe. But there’s a little more to the story behind the misunderstood fruit’s stint of unpopularity in England and America, as Andrew F. Smith details in his The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery. The tomato didn’t get blamed just for what was really lead poisoning. Before the fruit made its way to the table in North America, it was classified as a deadly nightshade, a poisonous family of Solanaceae plants that contain toxins called tropane alkaloids.
One of the earliest-known European references to the food was made by the Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who first classified the “golden apple” as a nightshade and a mandrake—a category of food known as an aphrodisiac.
Of course, we have so many uses for the tomato now, this is hard to imagine, but civilization was spared its lack after those early days, and now they’re everywhere – and should be.
The tomato is now grown and eaten around the world. It is used in diverse ways, including raw in salads, and processed into ketchup or tomato soup. Unripe green tomatoes can also be breaded and fried, used to makesalsa, or pickled. Tomato juice is sold as a drink, and is used in cocktails such as the Bloody Mary.
Tomatoes are acidic, making them especially easy to preserve in home canning whole, in pieces, as tomato sauceor paste. The fruit is also preserved by drying, often in the sun, and sold either in bags or in jars with oil.
Tomatoes are used extensively in Mediterranean cuisine. They are a key ingredient in pizza, and are commonly used in pasta sauces. They are also used in gazpacho (Spanish cuisine) and pa amb tomàquet (Catalan cuisine).
Tomatoes are now eaten freely throughout the world. They contain the carotene lycopene, one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. In some studies, lycopene, especially in cooked tomatoes, has been found to help prevent prostate cancer, but other research contradicts this claim. Lycopene has also been shown to improve the skin’s ability to protect against harmful UV rays. A study done by researchers at Manchester and Newcastle universities revealed that tomato can protect against sunburn and help keeping the skin looking youthful. Natural genetic variation in tomatoes and their wild relatives has given a genetic plethora of genes that produce lycopene, carotene, anthocyanin, and other antioxidants. Tomato varieties are available with double the normal vitamin C (Doublerich), 40 times normal vitamin A (97L97), high levels ofanthocyanin (resulting in blue tomatoes), and two to four times the normal amount of lycopene (numerous available cultivars with the high crimson gene).
Of course, you can hardly have a sandwich or a salad without at least one slice of tomato these days, and I am glad of it. There are too many plants in the garden here, we’ll be leaving them in baskets at neighbors’ doors by dark of night by August. But who would want to go through a planting season without those wonderful tomatoes? Not me.