Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Fresh tomatoes. They are just one of the many joys of summer. There’s nothing like plucking one right off the vine, adding a sprinkle of salt, and taking a big ol’ bite. Tomatoes have become so commonplace in our cooking that they seem kind of boring when compared to exotic fruits like lychee or rambutan. However, tomatoes have quite the story to tell.
Students in my biology classes were often surprised to learn that tomatoes are actually a fruit, rather than a vegetable. What’s the difference? Fruits are the swollen ovary of the flower that protect the seeds. Vegetables are the leaves, stems and roots of plants. Yet these classifications are strictly from a botanical standpoint. Ask the Supreme Court and they will tell you that tomatoes are indeed vegetables. If this seems a bit preposterous, lawyers really did argue about it in front of the highest court of the land back in 1893. Ten years prior, the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883 had imposed a tax on imported vegetables. The tax did not apply to fruits. John Nix & Company filed suit against Edward Hedden, who had imposed this tariff on the tomatoes that Nix was importing from the Caribbean. Nix provided substantial evidence that tomatoes are fruits, but the Supreme Court ruled in the favor of Hedden. What was their logic? Because tomatoes are grown in gardens, prepared like vegetables, and eaten prior to dessert, then they are grouped with vegetables.
The debate about its classification is not the only tomato controversy. When Spanish explorers brought the plant back from Mexico in the 1500s, people initially thought it was a type of eggplant. This earned it nicknames like “barbarian eggplant” and “foreign eggplant.” But this new plant soon earned a more sinister nickname - poison apple. During this time period wealthy people ate from dishes made of pewter, which is high in lead. The acid from the tomato leached the lead from the plate resulting in lead poisoning. Unfortunately, the tomato got blamed for the deaths, not the plates! As a result, tomatoes were strictly grown as ornamentals for almost 200 years before people finally accepted them as a legitimate source of food. Once they shed their reputation as being poison apple they became regarded as the pomme d’amour or love apple. It was thought that they might be an aphrodisiac because they were originally classified with the mandrake plant which was associated with lusty thoughts. Perhaps this explains why the literal translation of puttanesca sauce is “whore’s spaghetti.”
Whether it’s poison or lust, there still remains some debate about the safety of eating tomatoes. These plants belong to the nightshade family along with potatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tobacco. Nightshades contain chemical compounds known as alkaloids, which are toxic in large doses. Edible nightshades have very low alkaloid levels, but some people believe that it’s enough to cause inflammation. According to the Cleveland Clinic, scientific studies have not demonstrated a link between nightshades and inflammation or other health issues. There may be those who are sensitive to eating them, but for most people, edible nightshades are a good source of nutrition.
This year, I’m growing five varieties of tomatoes in my garden: Washington Cherry, Gold Nugget, Marriage Genuwine, Roma, and Homestead. The Gold Nuggets were the first to ripen, producing beautiful spheres of edible sunshine! The Washington Cherries were right behind them. They are larger than most cherry tomatoes and the plants are extremely hardy. Last year I harvested the last fruit in early October.
Washington Cherry and Gold Nugget
Marriage Genuwine is an heirloom hybrid. I didn’t know such thing existed. I always thought that plants were either hybrids or heirlooms, but that’s not the case. This variety is a cross between two heirlooms, Brandywine and Genovese. The tomatoes get their good looks and size from Brandywine. It has Genovese to thank for its juiciness.
Roma tomatoes are known as a paste tomato because they are ideal for making sauces. They don’t contain as many seeds and tend to be rather firm. They are known as a determinant tomato, which means that the fruit will ripen all at once. Interestingly enough, I’ve had a few ripen already, but most are still quite green. The Homestead tomato is an heirloom variety that was developed in the 1950s at the University of Florida. This is also a determinant plant. None of them have ripened yet, but once they do I’m going to have quite the crop.
Roma (left) and Homestead
Growing tomatoes successfully has taken years of practice. When I gardened in Florida, my only real triumph was the Everglades Cherry. This plant was so vigorous and it would easily reseed. Even though the fruit was very small, it was packed with tomato flavor. Other varieties that I tried to grow would typically succumb to various plant diseases even when I chose hybrids that were supposed to be resistant. I have had much better luck here in Washington, but it has been work. I started seeds in early March in small peat pots. From there, I moved them into 4x4 inch pots and placed them under grow lights. Once they started taking over my dining room, I moved them into 1-gallon pots. My husband built a makeshift greenhouse so that we could move them outside until they were finally ready for the garden.
The rule of thumb is that they can go into the ground after Mother’s Day, but I was skeptical. I monitored the weather predictions and waited until several consecutive nights when temperatures didn’t drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures below that can cause the blossoms to fall off resulting in a smaller harvest. My patience and perseverance are starting to pay off. I’m now having to give them away!
I’m still exploring new ways to incorporate tomatoes into my cooking. I’ve tried a handful of new recipes this season. For a fast and easy summer supper, I highly recommend Spaghetti with No-Cook Puttanesca. The only thing you have to cook are the noodles. You can’t beat that on a hot day! If you like gazpacho, you must try this recipe. I skip the beef broth, but follow the rest of the recipe as written. It’s really worth all of the chopping. The recipe makes a large quantity so unless you want to eat it for a week, make sure you have some people that you can share it with.
Both fruit and vegetable and certainly not poisonous, tomatoes are the love apple of my eye!
Spaghetti With No-Cook Puttanesca