Issue 23 Fruits Fall 2006
It's a Fruit, Goddamn It!
Thesis: You Gotta Love Tomatoes
Antithesis: You Hotta Hate Tomatoes
Tomatoes belong to the solanaceae, or Deadly Nightshade family, so named because they contain the poisonous alkaloid, solanine. Solanum in Latin means "nightshade." Frightened? Just check www.tomatoesareevil.com, the website devoted to the proposition that the humble tomato is the root of all evil. You'll never eat another one. For starters, you'll discover that tomatoes are cousin not only to the eggplant, red pepper, and potato, but to the highly toxic belladonna, as well. Botanists count an astonishing 10,000 varieties of tomatoes, all of them containing trace elements of nicotine, which some doctors insist can promote an addiction every bit as tenacious and debilitating as cigarettes. So frightening is this category of plants that one can find warnings of its side effects from one of England's earliest poets, Aelfric, in the year 1000, in his Chronicles of Britain.
More than any other food, the tomato had to undergo an astonishing journey to become today's standard accompaniment to, say, almost every one of the billions of hamburgers that people consume around the world every year. The tomato went from a poisonous plant to be avoided at all costs to one of the rare treats on the most elegant dinner tables. No other fruit or vegetable, not even the avocado or the artichoke, can claim such a through-going and radical reversal.
The Aztecs cultivated the plant as early as 700 AD. Thus, tomato is one of the few words in English that derives from the Uto-Aztecan language, specifically from the Nahautl word, xitotomatl, "plump fruit," which got shortened to the simpler tomatl. Some historians believe that Cortés brought the tomato back to Europe, to Seville, an early version of the City Market, which distributed produce to Italy and the Low Countries. Whether Cortés carried the plant back or not, when the tomato finally made its way to England, people could not even bear to speak its name. For instance, while the British began cultivating tomatoes as early as the 1580s, the word does not appear in English until some twenty years later, as if naming it made the tomato too real and permanent. When botanists finally named the plant, in 1604, they kept its Hispanic root in its new name, tomate, making certain that no one mistake this plant as native to British soil.
Farmers in England found the tomato unfit for consumption even by wild animals, and grew them exclusively as ornamental plants. For one thing, botanists mistook the fruit's Italian name Pomo d'oro, the "golden apple," for Pomo d'amoro, "love apple," prompting authorities to issue strong warnings against its consumption, as a most potent aphrodisiac. As if that were not damning enough, the British also believed that the tomato was a hallucinogen, which could induce grand visions of flying. This helped to forge a close symbolic connection between tomatoes and those creatures who spent a good deal of time airborne—witches. And since witches had a special talent for conjuring werewolves, it prompted the eighteenth-century botanist John Hill to classify the tomato as lycopersicon lycopersicum, or "wolf peach."
All of this with one glaring exception. Which helps to explain my father's own fascination with tomatoes. Historians have found recipes using tomatoes in English cookbooks used by Sephardic Jews who had emigrated from Spain and Portugal. Other Jews, from Europe and Russia, quietly embraced the lowly tomato as well. One of the principal outsiders, the Jew, made friends with the weirdest outsider fruit of all time, the tomato. Jews and tomatoes: who would have thought it? It turns out that my old man worked in an ancient, established tradition.
In fact, the tomato's outsider status helps explain why my mother owned a pincushion in the shape of a small, red tomato. I thought it was her clever way to placate my father, making him believe that tomatoes were so important in her life that she even kept one in front of her when she darned his socks (and damned his life). But it turns out that virtually everyone's mother had a version of the tomato pincushion—all because of homeopathic magic. In many Renaissance households, people placed a tomato on their mantle as a way of containing evil in one evil object, thus helping to ensure prosperity for the family. But tomatoes eventually rot. So people resorted to stuffed models. And since the little cushions possessed a bit of voodoo magic, it held all the pins and needles in the house.
Though it's hard to imagine, Americans feared the deadly tomato more than did the British, reluctant to treat them even as ornamental. The earliest references to the plant in America come from a herbalist, in 1710, at a South Carolina plantation, who approached the tomato with the same trepidation that sushi eaters approach the blowfish: they might taste wonderful, but I am not dying to find out. He exhibited them on his property as a curiosity. According to the standard work, Andrew Smith's The Tomato in America, attitudes did not really begin to change until 100 years later when the president himself, Thomas Jefferson, announced in 1809 that he had begun growing tomatoes on his own grounds and serving them at state dinners. By then, the British had had several centuries to get used to tomatoes, and were eating them in at least small amounts. But Americans remained wary. Jefferson was in the last year of his presidency, and who knows, perhaps he thought he had little to lose in recommending them.
Whatever the case, Jefferson's endorsement did not help. Americans needed more pizzazz, more flash, in their testimonials. This is a country, after all, with a long history of mountebanks. We invented the Shopping Channel. Americans need outrageous claims, unbelievable guarantees, and wild promises. A local entrepreneur, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, a huckster straight out of Huckleberry Finn, gave the public exactly what it needed. He took an ad in a local Salem, New Jersey, newspaper boasting that he would consume an entire bushel of the supposed toxic tomatoes in one sitting without missing a single heartbeat. On the afternoon of 26 September 1830, an astonishing two thousand people showed up on the steps of the courthouse in Salem. Johnson's own physician, James Van Meter, playing the Dauphin to Johnson's Duke, raised crowd expectations to a fever pitch: "The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid in one dose, and he is dead. If the Wolf Peach is too ripe and warmed by the sun, he might even be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, I must warn him that his skin will stick to his stomach and cause cancer." Like some death-defying circus performer, Johnson ate his way through the bushel-full of tomatoes to thunderous applause. The modern tomato was born.
At that moment, acceptance came so fast that, by the late 1830s, several pharmaceutical companies were in fierce competition selling tomato pills, which they guaranteed—in language my father would later use with me—to cure diarrhea, dyspepsia, cholera, and even cancer. During the Civil War, both sides consumed a daily ration of tomatoes—solid enough proof for the whole of the United States, North and South, that tomatoes were as safe as, well, tomatoes.
And certainly safe enough for an unknown fruit merchant named Joseph Campbell and an icebox manufacturer named Abraham Anderson to open their Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company, in that same state of New Jersey, in the city of Camden, just down the road from my father's stomping ground, Newark. By 1897, shortly after the company opened, it took an investment gamble and started producing condensed tomato soup. The cans sold so extraordinarily well that the partners quickly changed the name of their operation to the Campbell Soup Company. "Just add water" entered common kitchen lingo. Today, Americans down approximately 2.5 billion bowls of Campbell's soups yearly, the vast majority of those bowls brimful with tomato soup. It's only in the summer, and only in Campbell's state of New Jersey, by the way, that one hears a decisive answer to the Great Tomato Question. "I had a terrific tomato only yesterday," people eagerly report, "from upstate Jersey. Right from the field. Picked ripe. Not gassed."
So famous are those tomatoes that, in 2004, a local growers association proposed that the state of New Jersey adopt the tomato as the state fruit. But the tomato simply could not shed enough of its night-shady past to satisfy the bigwigs in the state capital, leaving some lowly fourth-graders from a local elementary school to best the growers. The children lobbied the state assembly through petitions and letters in favor of the much more benign cultivated blueberry. Much to the chagrin of the New Jersey State Growers Association, the blueberry now reigns as the state fruit.
Synthesis: You Gotta Serve Tomatoes
Why wouldn't Andy Warhol seize on Campbell's Tomato Soup as the American icon? Joe Campbell had tamed the renegade tomato, vacuum packed it, and delivered it to America in safe metal containers. He added a label white as cleanliness itself—not a witch or a werewolf in sight—with just enough red to suggest that somewhere in the process a tomato had once been present. The color was uniform, the taste absolutely uniform. No one in the family, not even mother, need touch a tomato to serve soup to every person. In a stroke of genius, Campbell had turned those little red bombs into the purity of puree.
Warhol took Joe Campbell a couple of steps farther. He drained whatever bogey was still left in the tomato, whatever fear the public still felt, and re-presented the package as the height of slick. Still frightened by that little red fruit? You don't even have to eat it. Look, tomato soup has leaped categories. Pop: It's art! You can buy a can, just like the one Andy used, and put it on your shelf. And admire it. Even in the kitchen, you can be famous.
Warhol showed his first red and white silkscreen in 1962. I had my fifteen minutes of silkscreen fame much earlier—in 1946. Those few moments arrived when my father got the bright idea that he would brand his small tomato packages, BARRY BOY TOMATOES. Was my old man an incipient Warhol? I think not, but on each small box he printed a picture of my eight-year-old face, hovering over the caption, "Oh Boy, Barry Boy, Just The Best." My father was playing off of existing varieties like Better Boy and Big Boy. He never asked my permission. But I enjoyed hours and hours of fame. I would walk into the Safeway or A & P Market and there I would be, lined up in the produce department, between the corn and the peas, my smile of freshness and quality beaming back at me from dozens of small packages of tomatoes. What I didn't realize at first, of course, is that all my friends were seeing the same tomato packages, and the same dumb smiling face. Of course, they quickly branded me Barry Boy, or Tomato Boy, or Best Boy. Friends noticed that I, too, was round and rosy, just like a tomato. I was "a fruit," "a veg," a general freak.
But there it was—tomatoes were part of me. My father's advice did not work. How could it? Tomatoes were not just in my blood; he had turned me into a tomato. Was I animal, mineral, or vegetable? No, I was indeed a fruit. I prayed for him to go out of business. My face was a curse. But I was only seven. No worry, in only ten or twenty or thirty short years, I could hopefully grow out of my shame.
And I did. In 1970, after being fired from my teaching job at a local college, after an anti-Vietnam War demonstration, I opened a vegetarian restaurant in Santa Monica, California, which I ran collectively with students who had dropped out with me. I gave the endeavor a bit of Warhol irony by naming it The Health Department. Rolling Stone touted it as the best buy for food in LA. We served only vegetarian meals, only organic fresh fruits and vegetables. We featured the tomato. We served them as a dessert. My father had won. I thought.
AFTERWORD: "YOU SAY TOE-MAY-TOE AND I SAY TOE-MAH-TOE"
Look up the word fruit in the Oxford English Dictionary and here's what you'll find: "Vegetable products in general, that are fit to be used as food by men and animals." According to the principle authority on the English language, the OED, a fruit's nothing but a vegetable. Try to find the botanical definition of a fruit. That, too, will prove difficult. You won't find it in the Oxford Companion to Food. The OED won't reveal it. Only the venerable Larousse Gastronomique comes titillating close: "Botanically speaking the ovary of any growing plant. In current usage, however, 'fruit' refers only to those ovaries which may be eaten as dessert."
No plant eludes the grasp of taxonomy quite like the tomato. It must be a vegetable. Instinct tells us so. Otherwise, we would not so willingly lay a slice on a hamburger patty. My old man, of course, knew better. He had inside info. Though my father would cringe, if he knew it, the tomato is the plant's ovary, along with its seeds. "Eating a tomato"—the idea's damned near pornographic.
In 1883, tariff laws in the United States imposed a duty on vegetables but not on fruits. Here was a chance to find out the tomato's precise status. Newspapers raised the issue: Should the government tax tomatoes? The Department of Agriculture argued the point; botanists, too. The debate continued for a solid decade. And since the politicians and the scientists could not agree, the legal system would have to decide the tomato's fate. Government lawyers hauled the tomato into the Supreme Court. In 1893, the nine Supremes, in a case known as Nix v. Hedden, classified the tomato as a vegetable, using as definitive proof the fact that people eat tomatoes with their main course and not with, or as, their dessert.
One hundred years later, in an attempt to justify President Reagan's drastic cuts in the school lunch program, the Chairman of the United States Department of Agriculture, citing Nix v. Hedden, reassured a wary public that the tomato was indeed a vegetable. Reagan's budget cuts had wiped out all the fresh vegetables on school cafeteria menus, and parents protested. But since the kids still had their ketchup, that was good enough for the Gipper. Ketchup: my father would have yanked me out of school.
In the winter of 1967, at the end of a career spent selling tomatoes, my father lay on his deathbed and told me what a terrifically hard life he had endured. Some part of me just would not buy it, and I asked him: didn't he actually have a good time those sixty-odd years in the produce market, with all his hard-boiled pals? We were alone; it was the end. He could speak the truth. True to his character to the very end, my father managed a slight Cagney smile and nodded, yes. Then he asked me to promise him something. I said, "Of course." He looked me in the eye and uttered the last sentence of his life, seven words that allowed me to choose, if I really, truly wanted, fruits and vegetables as my line of work. Here are his last words: "Don't do the things you don't enjoy."
He would have liked my restaurant. I think.
Barry Sanders is professor of the history of ideas at Pitzer College, of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of fourteen books. The latest, written with Francis D. Adams, is titled Alienable Rights: The Exclusion of African-Americans in a White Man’s Land, 1619–2000 (HarperCollins, 2004). Currently writing a book on the disappearance of the human being in the nineteenth century, he can be found eating heirloom tomatoes, when he gets the chance, with a little Cretan oil and balsamic vinegar in the company of his wife and daughter in his favorite political outpost—Portland, Oregon.
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© 2006 Cabinet Magazine