The Triumph of the “Love Apple”

By Awake! writer in Spain

MANY centuries ago the “love apple” was a straggly plant growing in the Andean region of South America. Its berries were quite tasty, but the local Indians apparently did not cultivate it. Somehow this extraordinary plant found its way to Mexico, where the Aztecs gave it the name xitomatl. The term tomatl referred to several similar, mostly juicy, fruits. Before long, tomato sauce, or salsa, became an established part of Aztec cuisine, and the tomato set out on the long road to international recognition.

The Spanish conquistadores also found tomato sauce quite tasty. In 1590, a Jesuit priest who lived most of his life in Mexico said that tomatoes were very wholesome, good to eat, and full of juice that gives a good taste to sauce. From Mexico, the Spanish sent tomato seeds to Spain and to their colonies in the Caribbean and in the Philippines. But despite this promising beginning, it took over three centuries before the tomato found its rightful place in the kitchens of the world.

Overcoming an Unsavory Reputation

Culinary prejudice​—like any other—​can be hard to overcome. Notwithstanding the tomato’s reputation in Mexico, it soon acquired a bad name in Europe. The problem began when European botanists classified the tomato as a member of the Solanaceae family​—the same family as the poisonous belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Besides, its leaves gave off a strong smell, and they proved to be toxic. To complicate matters further, some herbalists claimed that the tomato had aphrodisiac powers. Some believe that this was the reason the French called it pomme d’amour, or the “love apple.”

The unsavory aspects of the tomato’s reputation also spread to North America. As late as the 1820’s, an American gardener from Massachusetts declared: “[Tomatoes] appeared so disgusting that I thought I must be very hungry before I should be induced to taste them.” He was not the only tomato skeptic. A Pennsylvanian called them “sour trash,” and a contemporary British horticulturist described the tomato plant as “the stinking golden apple.”

Fortunately, the Italians, who in the 16th century had named the tomato pomodoro (golden apple), were more practical. * By the early 17th century,  tomatoes had become a popular food in Italy, where the sunny climate favored their cultivation. But for nearly two centuries, gardeners in the north of Europe remained unconvinced, and they cultivated tomatoes merely as a decorative or medicinal plant.

From Prejudice to Popularity

Once people started tasting tomatoes, however, former doubts disappeared, and tomato cultivation took off. By the 1870’s, fresh California tomatoes were on sale in New York, thanks to the new transcontinental railway. A few decades earlier, the first pizzeria opened in Naples, Italy, and with it came an increased demand for tomatoes. And during the 20th century, a growing demand for tomato soup, juice, sauce, and catsup​—not to mention the popular pizza—​converted the much-maligned tomato into the most popular fruit on earth. (See accompanying box.) Apart from its success with commercial growers, the tomato has also become a favorite with gardeners​—from the deserts of the Middle East to the windswept North Sea.

From Sinai to an Oil Rig

An oil rig stationed in the middle of the North Sea might not seem the ideal place to grow fruits and vegetables, but the tomato is not a fussy plant. Given sufficient water and a tailor-made plastic bag containing all the necessary nutrients, its seeds can even flourish without soil. Hence the tomato’s success among the oilmen, who like seeing some greenery among the sterile pipes and machinery of their oil rig as well as having some homegrown fruit to grace their table.

With a little pampering, tomatoes can also be coaxed from the soil of the desert. Scattered among the Sinai mountains, in Egypt, Jabaliyyah Bedouin have hewn out terraced gardens that are watered by springs, wells, and occasional rainfall. Their carefully irrigated gardens produce a bumper crop of large tomatoes, which they dry in the sun to last them throughout the winter.

The tomato’s almost universal popularity, however, depends on much more than its ability to adapt to different soils and climates. Most tomato plants are self-pollinating, so different varieties can easily be developed to suit different tastes. There are now about 4,000 varieties for gardeners to choose from. The small, juicy cherry tomato adds color and flavor to salads, while the sweet plum tomato is often canned. And the huge beefsteak tomato, a staple food in Spanish kitchens, is ideal for both salads and cooking.

But it was taste, of course, that finally gave the tomato its triumph​—a mouth-watering taste that can embellish a pizza, garnish a salad, flavor a sauce, or enrich a juice. While it did not turn out to be a “love apple,” the whole world now loves tomatoes.

[Footnote]

^ par. 8 It is speculated that this name was given to the tomato because the first varieties the Italians cultivated were yellow.

 [Box/Pictures on page 26]

Gazpacho​—A Refreshing Taste of Tomato

Would you like to try a refreshing cold soup that is ideal for hot summer days? In the Andalusian region of Spain, gazpacho is served practically every day with the main meal. It is easy to prepare, requires simple ingredients, and will give your family a healthy and appetizing start to a meal. Here is a typical Spanish recipe for five people.

Ingredients

1 1⁄4 pounds [600 grams] ripe tomatoes

3⁄4 pound [350 grams] cucumbers

1⁄2 pound [250 grams] red sweet peppers

2 slices dry bread (two ounces [60 grams])

1 ounce vinegar [30 ml.]

1 ounce olive oil [30 ml.]

salt

1 clove garlic

small pinch of cumin

Preparation Clean the peppers, peel the cucumbers, and skin the tomatoes. Then cut these ingredients into small chunks. Put them in a bowl with two pints [1 liter] of water (sufficient to cover the vegetables), along with the bread, garlic, seasoning, vinegar, and oil. Leave the soup overnight, and the following day crush the mixture with a hand blender and strain it. If necessary, add more seasoning according to taste. Keep the gazpacho in the refrigerator until ready to serve. The gazpacho can be served with finely chopped cubes of tomato, cucumber, and sweet pepper.

[Box on page 27]

Tomato Facts and Figures

The tomato has become the world’s most popular fruit. Nearly 100 million tons are harvested yearly, considerably more than the other major fruit crops of the world (apples, bananas, grapes, and oranges).

Although the tomato is sometimes called a vegetable, botanically it is a fruit, for it is the edible part of the plant that contains the seeds (generally a vegetable consists of the edible stems, leaves, and roots of a plant).

According to The Guinness Book of Records, the biggest tomato on record weighed 7 pounds 12 ounces [3.5 kilos] and was grown in Oklahoma, U.S.A.

Smoking tobacco near the plants or before handling them can be harmful to the plants. Tobacco carries a virus to which the tomato plant is susceptible.

Apart from containing vitamins A and C, tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant. Some research studies suggest that a tomato-rich diet may help reduce the risk of cancer.