The Tangy, Tantalizing Tomato
However you eat it-
fresh or canned, stewed, stuffed, sliced or spiced-
this bumptious berry adds bite (and vitamins)
to diets around the world.
We've all been conned: The tomato, it turns out, is not what it appears to be. This superstar of the "vegetable" world is really a fruit - actually a berry!
Whatever we consider it, our cuisine would suffer severely without it's powerful personality: Sandwiches and salads would lack zip, pasta would pale, pizza would have no pizazz, chili would be wiped out. And hamburgers would have no ketchup!
Eat it raw or cooked. Bake, broil, slice, stew or stuff it; drink it; serve it as pie or soup; or use it in a singing, spicy sauce for just about anything-meat, eggs, fish or sausage. That tantalizing balance of sugar and acid, sweet and sour, gives the tomato it's outrageous taste-even when it is plopped into cans.
Versatile-YES! And universal too. Consider Italy's record repertoire of tomato-sauced pastas, cacciatores, pizzaiolas, minestrones, osso bucos, and on and on. French dishes have featured the tomato since the days of the Great Careme, King of Chefs. The Spanish honor it in their famous gazpacho soup. The Greeks stick it on skewers with chunks of lamb. In India and Indonesia hot-tomato chutneys are a staple. In the United States the red wonder has even taken men to fame and fortune, among them Joseph Campbell, who created the world's biggest soup company by first canning large beefsteak tomatoes.
It's generally believed that this unique treat originated in wild forms found in the Andes of South America, and made it's way North into Central America with migrating Indians. Mexico's Aztecs and Mayans, who cultivated xitomatle, later called tomatle or tomati, gave the fruit it's name. And in the early 16th century the Spanish conquistadors brought the tomato to Europe.
Quickly accepted in Spain and Italy, the tomato remained suspect in the rest of Europe; after all, it does belong to the dreaded nightshade family, Solanaceae, which includes poisonous hen bane, mandrake and belladonna. Called the "mad apple" or "rage apple," it was also considered a powerful aphrodisiac - the French named it pomme d'amour, "apple of love."
Grown in 16th-century England as an ornamental plant, the tomato was carried by colonists to North America. But it didn't appear in American marketplaces until the 19th century. In 1835 the Maine Farmer reported that tomatoes were being cultivated in that state and "are a useful article for every man's table."
Why do most of us know the tomato as a vegetable, not as a fruit?
The highest court in the land was at least partly responsible.
Under an 1883 tariff act, a ten-percent duty was placed on imported vegetables. The collector of customs for the Port of New York classified tomatoes as "vegetables in their natural state." This infuriated importers, who claimed that tomatoes were fruits and as such should be admitted duty-free.
In 1893 Associate Justice Horace Gray gave the opinion of the U. S. Supreme Court: "Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine. Just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in common language all these are vegetables, which are usually served at dinner with the principal part of the repast and not, like fruits generally, as a dessert."
It wasn't the duty of the Court to go further into the character of the tomato, but a more recent scientific survey by the University of California at Davis has established just what this well-balanced "fruit-vegetable" does for us. Although it ranks only 16th as a source of vitamin A among fruits and vegetables, and 13th as a source of vitamin C, it rises to 3rd as a provider of both-because we consume so much of it. And although the average tomato is 93.5-percent water, this far-out fruit also contains magnesium, niacin, iron, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, sodium and thiamine. Overall, the tomato is rated No. 1 among fruits and vegetables as a source of vitamins and minerals in our diet. It also is easy to digest, and is low in calories: Only 35 in a five-ounce tomato.
No wonder Americans spend over a billion dollars yearly on tomatoes, consuming 13.2 pounds per person of the fresh product-and 20.2 pounds per person of processed tomato products. Moreover, these numbers don't count tomatoes grown by the 35 million families now tilling home gardens-of whom four out of five prefer tomatoes to any other crop.
There are tomatoes for every purpose-over 1000 established varieties in the United States-and the list is growing. Tomatoes from all over the world are constantly being tested, and new ones hybridized and bred for yield, resistance to disease and nutritional value. There are tomatoes shaped like bells, cherries, eggs, plums, pears, strawberries, sausages-and, yes, there are square tomatoes, ideal for easy sandwich making. Special types are grown for slicing, canning, making juice, paste, sauce and salad. There's even a hollow tomato especially bred for stuffing.
And the colors!
Besides the reds, oranges and yellows, there are pink and white tomatoes, and tomatoes striped in red and yellow.
Few complaints are heard about garden tomatoes. It's the supermarket-or "winter"-ones we criticize, calling them "cannonballs" and "plastic junk." But take heart; if handled properly, the winter tomato will be not only fit to eat but a treat.
Like bananas, tomatoes should never be refrigerated-not until they are dead ripe anyway. They should be kept in temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit or they will not finish ripening and will be tasteless. Tomatoes should also be stored with the stem side up, and never in the sun.
Following the above suggestion, I ran a taste test with one of Florida's winter tomatoes, the "Duke," a big, fat, red-ripe fruit. To be sure, the "Dukes" were not as good as tomatoes from my summer garden. But we had just had a blizzard, and it was a privilege simply to look at these tokens of the sun. That they had flavor, juice and that summery tomato aroma was a bonus.
So don't be conned by the tomato. It is a fruit, even though it fits every course in a good meal. And you can enjoy this fruit of summer even in the dead of winter.