The Five Teachings of Tomatoes | Musings on a Murky History

It’s hard to imagine that tomatoes were once considered inedible. (photo by Juliet Jarmosco)

The other night I put together a cherry (tomato) pie and it was tasty. It was so tasty that as I forked flaky crust, creamy Gruyere, and juicy tomatoes into my mouth, inspiration struck. The tomato has a lengthy and murky history, and as I ate that pie I began thinking that the story of tomatoes might have something to teach me. Such as . . .


1. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot. (Neil Gaiman)

Who was first to embrace tomato eating? The Italians will tell you they popularized the tomato by creating the pizza. Thomas Jefferson fans will tell you that Jefferson popularized the tomato by growing and eating it at Monticello. And Campbell’s will tell you they lifted the tomato to true fame with the invention of tomato soup.

Everyone has their own tomato tale to tell. But why? The tomato, a native of Central and South America, has been around for awhile. The Aztecs domesticated it sometime before 500 BC. Cortés or perhaps Columbus brought the tomato to Europe around the early 16th century. By the middle of the 16th century, the tomato was in Italy, and by the end of the 16th century, the tomato had landed in Britain. And be it by the trans-Atlantic or the Caribbean route, the tomato had swum its way into North American writings by the early 18th century.

The thing is, though, that for the longest time, no one was eating the tomato. Europeans widely believed it to be poisonous and grew the plants for decoration only. The claims to tomato popularization, then, are claims over who was the first to recognize tomatoes as edible entities (with everyone conveniently forgetting that the Aztecs had been eating tomatoes since 500 BC).

This all leads to one of my favorite tomato stories (be it certifiable or fantasy): In 1830 a man known as Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson hunkered down on the steps of the local courthouse and ate his way through a basket of tomatoes to demonstrate their safety. A crowd gathered and watched in vain for foaming at the mouth or impending death spasms. Johnson came through unscathed, and so from that day on people ate tomatoes.

2. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself. (J.K. Rowling)

The official biological name for the tomato is Solanum lycopersicum. Tomatoes hail from the Solanaceae family, also known as the nightshade family, and tomato plants somewhat resemble the poisonous belladonna plants. Hence the Solanum, which is Latin for “deadly nightshade.”

Lycopersicum means “wolf peach” and derives from German werewolf myths. According to these legends, witches and sorcerers could use plants of the nightshade family to call forth or perhaps transform into werewolves. Thus the biological name for the tomato evokes both poison and wolves, and perhaps that’s why it took Europeans so long to start ingesting them.

3. In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. (Benjamin Franklin)

Another area of contention was whether the tomato is a vegetable or a fruit. Botanically, a tomato is a fruit (a berry, actually), since it develops from the ovary of a flowering plant. But when it comes to preparing dinner, we call the tomato a vegetable and eat it as such. We treat this botanical fruit as a culinary vegetable, and thus the confusion.

The debate raged until 1893, when the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the landmark case of Nix v. Hedden that a tomato is correctly identified as a vegetable. You might wonder, as I did, why the government would weigh in on such an issue. Here is your answer: The court made this ruling in relation to the Tariff of 1883. Vegetables were taxable but fruit were not, so in this ambiguous case the government decided to rule in favor of vegetable and go ahead and collect taxes.

4. And I find a happiness in the fact of accepting —In the sublimely scientific and difficult fact of accepting the inevitable natural. (Alberto Caeiro)

Currently scientists are investigating the molecular makeup responsible for that good, old-fashioned tomato taste. The studies go like this: Consumers eat many varieties of heirloom tomatoes and then evaluate (subjectively) the relative tastiness of the varieties. Then the scientists analyze the molecular composition of the tasty varieties and look for a correlation between tastiness and certain chemical compounds.
You might think that such research seems a little supererogatory, being that anyone who wants to experience old-fashioned tomato taste just needs to take a bite of an old-fashioned tomato. The endgame of the research, however, is to reintroduce the old-fashioned tomato taste into certain hybrid varieties that have lost their taste in favor of traits such as travel hardiness and ability to ripen evenly in storage.

No doubt there is much to learn from nature. But sometimes it seems a little overdone, this eternal struggle to beat nature at its own game. Especially if we can get the same result simply reclaiming what’s always been there.

5. All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

The other evening, I was so excited, I had just conceived of this stellar idea. Convinced I had been kissed by genius, graced by greatness, I ran to my husband.

“Tim!” I said. “You know what we should make? A cherry (tomato) pie! Get it, like a cherry pie, but with tomatoes? How brilliant is that!” Tim said that sounded good to him, and I went on, “I can’t believe I haven’t come across a cherry (tomato) pie before. I wonder if anyone else has ever thought of this.” Tim suggested I Google it. I did, and I got 350,000 hits.

“Make it anyway,” Tim said.  “It sounds tasty.”

Cherry (Tomato) Pie

I may love to cook but baking is just not my thing. Baking is my sister’s thing, and since you really only need one baker in a family, I’ve never gotten into it. So I begin this recipe with a store-bought pie crust. If you are a baker, however, you are completely welcome to make your own!

1 store-bought pie crust
2 cups crumbled Gruyere cheese
3 heaping cups of cherry tomatoes (heirlooms if at all possible)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/3 c. Parmesan cheese
Couple sprigs fresh basil and oregano

Mold pie crust into a 9” pie pan (glass works great) and bake at 450 for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool. Lower your oven temp to 350. While waiting for the crust and oven to cool, use a food processor to “grate” the Gruyere. Rinse your cherry tomatoes, but don’t bother slicing them. Just leave them whole. Mince the garlic and mix it into the olive oil, then toss the olive oil mixture with the cherry tomatoes until the tomatoes are well coated. Season with black pepper and just a little bit of salt. Layer the cheese onto the pie crust, then arrange the cherry tomatoes on top of the cheese. You should basically have one layer of tomatoes across the top of the pie. Sprinkle on the Parmesan and cover the edges of the crust with foil to keep them from getting too dark in the oven. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes, until the cherry tomatoes are very soft and start to wrinkle. Let cool for about 10 minutes. Rough chop or chiffon the basil and oregano and scatter across the top of the pie. Enjoy!

Jocelyn and Tim Engman are the proprietors of the new Pickle Creek Herbs Tasting Room and Gift Shop, 104 S. 3rd St., Fairfield.