Three years ago, my husband decided to start growing an aphrodisiac in our urban postage-stamp property. I was as turned on as he was to the idea, so we did it together. He did all the outside work, and I did all the inside work, and today we are well-satisfied small-scale aphrodisiac farmers, with a gracious plenty of our crop to consume raw in the summer and quarts of the saucy darlings saved by for winter. Their pleasing roundness, their eye-watering colors and mouth-watering flavors are so much a part of our lives now that I wonder why it took us so long to realize we needed them. Maybe you have to be a little older to understand such joys to their fullest.
I hope that you realize I am talking tomatoes.
The tomato is a gracious gift from Our Mother: a small, firm, fully-packed load of vitamins, minerals, and integument that can be eaten just at it arrives or tarted up into myriad sauces, creams, soups, and soufflés. Since it has been for so long inbred, it is happiest in bread. It doesn’t mind being called a “tomahhhto,” having for long centuries been stuck with nicknames like wolf peach, love apple, and even devil apple. It is a poison that kills only with kindness, and around these parts, its juice is considered, by some folks (like myself), an essential for sustaining life, so that when we can the fruit, we have to conserve the red likker in its own jars.
Our tomato obsession started with simply buying a few plants at the local home-supply store. The tomato types we have run through on the way to eating and canning perfection have included Best Boys and Better Boys (where are the Bad Boys and Very Good boys these days?) known for their round regularity, the colorful Mr. Stripey, and the obstreperous German Johnsons, known for their odd shape and exceedingly tasty meat for those kitchen-sink treats. They have ranged in color from egg-yolk to scarlet to mauve.
What we have settled on this year, and I believe this will become the pattern unless someone advises us otherwise, are Rutgers for canning (almost perfect ball shape and dark orange-red color) and Brandywines. Rutgers are a rather famous older crossbreed. They have the tartness that makes for safe canning and consistent flavor. That they offer little surprise is the big positive for the Rutgers. As a raw tomato lover, I can’t say enough about Brandywines—they are wild and crazy guys, with bulges, protuberances, and a lot of stem. You can make the ultimate sandwich with them if your idea of excellence in a sandwich does not include perfect slice shape. Brandywine wedges are small and dark blue-red, cut off the lobes of the satisfyingly hefty fruit.
We puttered around with yellow tomatoes early on because it seemed as though they had more flavor, that sought-after tartness that wolf peach fanatics are often searching for. Yet they didn’t hold up well for canning and the fruits were small. Apparently, this is an area where hybridizing has generally run to the common taste. Why make a yellow tomato bigger when people would prefer to see a red one on their bread or in their jars? And that similarity of color in the jar is important to me; I will can about 60-70 quarts of love apples this year and I want them to line up like soldiers on the shelf, with no-one out of uniform.
Tomatoes provide another long tale of travel and transplanting. Just as Spanish soldiers stole sunflowers when they came to convert and/or kill the heathen Indians of the Americas, so they plundered the wonderful fruit they found there. The fruit by that time had already migrated from the Andes Mountains to the plains and jungles of Central America, and had a local name, tomatl, which the Spanish elided into “tomato.” All this happened more than 500 years ago. An Italian botanist in 1544 dubbed the fruit pomo d’oro, alerting us to the fact that the first tomatoes seen in Europe were probably yellow, the color of gold, possibly resembling the truly inedible (because of its toxicity) South African tomato appropriately named “devil apple.”
We are told that the tomato, when first stolen by the Spaniards, was far sweeter than any of our American hybrids. The sugar content was significant since in Europe at the time sugar was tantamount to an addictive drug. Sugar sources were few and when people got a little in their systems they went on the same sort of sugar high I can so readily observe in my grandchildren. Their sugar supply is carefully monitored at home, so when I exercise my Granny Spoiling Privilege and take them out for a treat that contains even the slightest bit of sugar, they clamber onto the nearest table and loudly orate on topics of great interest to toddlers everywhere but probably not so fascinating to our fellow adult diners. So it was, among adults, in Europe in the 1500s when they first encountered the pomo d’oro. Doubtless, the sugar rush reminded them, too, that reproduction was a really good idea, and sent them to their canopied beds (the lords and ladies) or their newly ploughed fields (the peasant lads and lasses). That may be how the tomato got its reputation as an aphrodisiac, or it may be that the more mundane explanation is correct—that “pomo d’oro” became “pomme d’amour” somewhere between Venezia and Paris. None of which would have happened if they’d had the Common Market and everyone had agreed on the term “tomato” and stuck with that.
No reason was given either for why the tomato was dubbed “wolf peach” (solanum lycopersicum) except that maybe wolves liked the original little yellow fruits just as much as our Chihuahua likes the modern red ones.
Tomatoes are in the botanical class solanum. This means they are in the same group as the poisonous deadly nightshade and the very scary eggplant, as well as the Humble Spud (see my Homestead.org article about this starchy wonder). In England, I knew people who would never eat potatoes and tomatoes in the same meal, for fear of overdosing on solanaceae. It isn’t nice to laugh at the phobias of others, but we can derive some humor from the historical terrors evinced by some of our more cautious or puritanical ancestors, who thought that the tomato was a dangerous dietary departure and that eating it could lead to no good. My theory is that Europeans in the 1500s, who had been stuck for centuries with hard fruits like apples and pears, reasoned that anything so easy to eat as a tomato was simply not morally acceptable; the tomato stood at the top of the slippery slope, a downward trajectory that would eventually find civilized people madly consuming bananas, papayas, watermelons, and cantaloupe, the latter also named for its association with wolves.
An engaging writer named Uncle Paul recorded this possibly apocryphal tomato tale for Walk About Magazine(online):
“Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, NJ, brought the tomato home to America from abroad in 1808. As the story is told, it was Johnson who, on September 26, 1820, once and for all proved tomatoes non-poisonous and safe for consumption. He stood on the steps of the Salem courthouse and bravely consumed an entire bushel of tomatoes without keeling over or suffering any ill effects whatsoever. His grandstanding attracted a crowd of over 2,000 people who were certain he was committing public suicide. This would have been the first reality TV show if they had had television back then. The local firemen’s band even played a mournful song, adding to the perceived morbid display of courage. Before consuming the bushel of tomatoes, Johnson said, ‘The time will come when this luscious, scarlet apple… will form the foundation of a great garden industry, and will be… eaten, and enjoyed as an edible food… and to help speed that enlightened day, to prove that it will not strike you dead—I am going to eat one right now!’
Colonel Johnson’s physician, Dr. James Van Meter, supposedly warned that ‘The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis, and with all that oxalic acid, in one dose, he would be dead.’”
Okay, that’s funny, but watch out for other Solanaceae blessed with seductive names: datura, mandragora, belladonna, all of which can make you very ill (and cause hallucinations that are probably not worth the pain), and the deadliest but the slowest working poison of all the solanums: nicotine. All of these nasties (and the aforementioned “devil apple”) have a wide spectrum of medicinal uses, though—including treatment for heart conditions and certain types of cancers. The tomato, too, is medicinal, a powerhouse package of vitamins C, A, and K, manganese, fiber, and even protein, with a calorie content under 35 on average. Tomatoes contain carotene lycopene, an antioxidant that is associated with a reduced risk of certain cancers.
Tomatoes grow on vines. I had always heard the expression “vine-ripened” yet what I saw in gardens seemed to be shrubs with hairy tough branches. Wrong. Our plants prove their vining proclivities every year, surprising me as I weave among the carefully caged and trained plants looking for the ripe fruits: suddenly I am treated to a SPLAT as I step on and crush what would have been a perfectly good tomato lying on the ground and realize that one of our tenderly cosseted “tomato trees” has thrown out a woody tendril that snakes along the ground underfoot. Oh well, I think, tomatoes grow on vines. We have devised ever so many ways to combat the plants’ vining tendencies, with cages that cost far more than the plants, and a few miles of strong twine. Despite the twine, the plant will twine in its suicidal way if given the chance.
By embracing—gently—the Rutgers and the Brandywines, my husband and I have, it seems, accidentally stumbled upon the two sides of the Great Tomato Duality. Having been raised in the city I did not know, until informed by a) my husband, b) all my neighbors and c) everybody else, that once a tomato has started to “turn”—showing its yellow, orange or pinkish hues—it no longer requires sunlight to ripen. It can be brought indoors to save it from the birds, the groundhogs, and the snails, there to ripen nicely on a windowsill. Tomatoes should be eaten or canned as soon as possible after they assume their full color. I confess, I do put ours in the fridge for a few days until I have the right quantity for canning, but if I were a wolf-peach purist, I would let them ripen on the vine, come what may, and eat them immediately at the height of their flavor life.
One half of the duality is the hybrid varieties.
Rutgers tomatoes were bred in the busy labs of Rutgers University in the 1930s to answer a housewife’s prayer for a reliable canning tomato. It was in the depths of the Great Depression that Rutgers U was able to spread a little joy to budget-conscious homemakers in the form of a heavy, tart fruit with smooth skin, all wrapped up in what Rutgers agri-scientists described as a “handsome flattened globe shape.”
Campbell and Heinz loved the Rutgers, and you know what that meant: tomato soup, that glorious lunch treat, reminding us in the dead of winter of warm summer evenings watching the ‘maters (as they are called around here) hanging heavy on the vine. So, in addition to being the home canner’s friend, Rutgers wolf peach hybrids were a commercial success that would wind up in liquid form in school lunches and friendly diners all over this great nation.
Homesteaders and housewives liked them so much they continued to save Rutgers seed for home growing. But lucky for us, the plants are available at the local farm supply store every spring. Reliable, just like the tomato itself.
Brandywine is one of many old tomato types known in the U.S. as heirloom cultivars. Though arguably there are no more original “tomatls” in the world, some varieties are older than others. Brandywine’s history can be traced back to the late 1880s; some people believe it came with the Amish and call it by that name. Brandywines are popular among seed savers, and popular here in my house for their weight and pinkish tint, their bulbous sprawl, and their faintly sweet flavor, probably close in taste to the original South American “tomatl” that the conquistadores thought so highly of. They are, for the grower, a bit more precious and finicky than the hardy Rutgers, with a falling tendency because of their weight and beloved of many insects, but worth every effort expended to produce. They are an example of how something rather ugly, unshapely and tough at the core can win the prize—if Rutgers is Miss Tomato, Brandywine comes home with the Miss Congeniality award. The other half of the duality is the heritage varieties.
It’s been hot here in Mayberry this summer. Very. The baking heat accompanied by enervating humidity with occasional dunking rains—it all seems to make our tomatoes happier this year than they’ve ever been. They prove this with their abundance, their brightness, and their exceptional edibility. They have more than paid for themselves in the exercise they have required of us and the monster sandwiches we greedily consume every day. And in the winter to come, they will pay again, slipping from the jars where we have stored them and shouting, “Springtime is on its way!”
*A word about mayonnaise: I learned from my hubby that all true Southerners prefer Duke’s mayo. This may have something to do with a certain ACC basketball team—or it may just be a cultural bias against ingesting something called Hell Man. You may use whatever mayo you like—or none at all—on your kitchen-sink mater sandwich.