Nothing spells mid-summer as boisterously as a berry coming in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but is mostly known for its red and its tangy-sweet flavor, the tomato. As a child, I wasn’t really keen on it; I belonged to the cucumber fraction rather. But today, I wish I had cherished those summer nights more when my mother served a simple dinner of buttered bread topped with slices of sun-ripened tomatoes (from the supermarket!), slivers of onion, and a pinch of salt.
I think, I started to like tomatoes when I was around ten. My mother made some marvelous tomato soup and tomato sauces from scratch; but she also knew how to make the best out of pastes and canned tomatoes. Forget a certain brand that is featured in pop art – it’s a sad, flavorless blob compared to what you can create yourself from this insanely versatile berry used mostly as a vegetable/salad item. For example, have you ever tried tomato sorbet? To die for! No wonder Austrians call tomatoes “Paradeiser” – i.e. “from Paradise”.
Anyhow, this wonder-berry has come to our table by way of the conquistadores, who must have had some natural scientists with them to water and tend to the plants on their way from South and Central America to Europe way back when. “Tomatl” means “thick water” – and it makes sense considering that tomatoes consist of approximately 95 % water; and I believe it easily, because at least half of it must sit in the juicy middle with its tiny jelly-surrounded seeds. Those are, by the way, said to be the tomato part richest in vitamins – a current kitchen fad has us remove all of them because some chefs tell us that aesthetically they are disturbing. I, for my part, rather have good nutrition than food looks. Besides – aren’t they a little miracle each by itself?!
I wonder why these first tomato importers didn’t seem to grasp that the solanum they introduced to their countries bore edible berries, but simply brought it along as a decorative plant. It might be that they tried, but the tomatine of the unripe berries would have stained pewter dishes. And if you try to eat tomatoes with silver cutlery, it’s also a plain disgusting experience. By the way, in Italy (from where the knowledge about edibility spread), the tomato was also called “pomodoro” – that means golden apple, not red apple. Maybe it looked differently way back then?
Tomatoes became more common in Europe’s culinary use only in the 1800s. They must still have been somewhat of an extraordinary item at the Viennese World Exhibition in 1873. In Germany, the tomato became a common food item only as of the 1950s – probably when the first travelers to foreign countries returned with enthusing tales about other peoples’ produce and food staples. When the first supermarkets were built in the 1960s, tomatoes for the first time became an item so common that the growing industry had to expand and genetic manipulation came on the map.
Today, there are officially 3,100 different tomato species worldwide with another such amount of privately produced species, if Wikipedia is to be believed. Some German labs even tried to cross the tomato with the potato – with little success, as the resulting plants simply weren’t capable to create enough substance for subterranean as above-ground produce. That must have been back in the late 70s – I remember a biology teacher of mine talking about the “Tomoffel” experiments.
I also remember my mother telling me that none of the green parts of a tomato should be eaten because they are poisonous – which is why she always cut out the part where the stem attaches. She was right, though they are not deadly. But the structure of that part is nasty as to texture and flavor anyhow. Still, you don’t have to waste tomatoes that are grown but still green when the sun doesn’t do its ripening job anymore. There are recipes for fried green tomatoes and green tomato relishes out there – both quite delicious.
We are not done yet with this year’s tomato harvest. There are still some dainty yellow blossoms bursting every day, waiting to be pollinated. There is a panicle of cherry tomatoes going through all shades between pea green and “almost there”, and I keep wondering when this one luscious, huge berry will turn color – or whether it might grow even more.
Tomato growing is fun and rewarding. At least, for the first time, this year it is for us. So far, we’ve had them as salad, as bread topping, in casseroles, in soups, in pasta sauces, and simply as snacks. If you can make space for one or two of these wonderful plants – if you have a garden – give it a try, too. A walk to the bed, watering and maybe harvesting, is a beautiful leisure occupation on a late summer evening, for sure.