Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Tomato

Lois hofshi w plants 2012

I

In a soup can. Flattened out on countless college halls and gallery walls.

II

If you put tomatoes in the fridge they will lose sweetness and flavour. But if you must, it’s best to treat them like cheese: take them out of the fridge 30 minutes before eating so they soften up, get to room temperature and stink out the house with their aroma (if only…).

III

You say tomato, but I say tomato

My mummy said we shouldn’t play

But it’s all the same to me.

IV

Spanish and Italians took to tomatoes much more readily than Northern Europeans. In France and Britain, tomatoes were more common as an attractive table piece until the 19th century. Perhaps this was because tomatoes grown in warmer places tasted nicer. But the tomato’s link with poisonous nightshade plants – which witches used to conjure up werewolfs in German myths – maybe discouraged people too.

V

The famous Tomatina annual tomato fight in Buñol, Spain, took place for the first time in 1945. Some say it stems from a row between rival youth gangs from Madrid, who were on summer vacation in Buñol. Another theory is that a truck crashed and spilled a heap of tomatoes. Another is a flirtatious food fight between sexually frustrated, unmarried lovers in the town square. Nobody really knows.

VI

When they arrived in Europe from the New World, tomatoes took on a range of new, exotic, evocative names in the Romance languages.

In Italy they became pomo d’oro, ‘apples of gold’, due to the rich yellow colour of these strange first tomatoes, which were also much smaller than the common red ones Europeans later bred.

In France they were pommes d’amour, or ‘apples of love’, since they were said to boost libido.

Or both of these are corruptions of pommes des Mours, a name by which aubergines were already widely known in Europe.

You choose.

VII

When I’m deciding whether to start watching a film or not, I put a lot of the decision-making power in a simple percentage figure that, when I google the name of the film, appears beside the words: Rotten Tomatoes.

This site takes its name from the common idea of people throwing rotten tomatoes when unhappy about a performance. It’s said to have started with audiences in Elizabethan London throwing rotten tomatoes at Shakespeare’s Globe. This is probably not true, but it’s firmly in the folklore now.

VIII

Tomato plants are said to contain solanine, a glycoalkaloid neurotoxin that can cause vomiting, dizziness, headaches, paralysis, nightmares, burning of the throat, jaundice, hypothermia and death. But according to some people we are very wrong about this, and the alkaloid in tomatoes (especially green ones) is actually tomatine. Tomatine is largely harmless, and some lab trials have suggested it can actually lower LDL cholesterol, stave off fungus and bacteria, inhibit the growth of cancer cells and stimulate the immune system in a good way.

IX

Everything is quiet. It’s early morning, 1809. John Barker, British Consul to Aleppo, is inspecting a plant in his garden that hasn’t been grown in the Middle East before.

It must have been doing well, because 200 years later we have the tomato to thank for fattoush, shakshuka and Turkish menemen.

X

Dublin, Ireland, 2004.

There’s a Spanish painting at the National Gallery. It’s a still life, with a mandolin, by Pablo Picasso, 1924.

There’s another Spanish painting at the National Gallery. It’s a still life, with big beefy tomatoes, by Luis Melendez, 1780.

Ireland has just replaced Italy as President of the European Council.

XI

In the mid-19th century, a large worm was infesting tomato patches across New York state. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it ‘an object of much terror’ whose lethal poison would remain on tomatoes reven after a single brush. Many people ripped up tomato plots, and they certainly avoided eating them. Eventually, I guess pizza made New Yorkers forget about this.

XII

Top-level chefs and TV personalities will often list ‘a tin of tomatoes’ on an ingredients list. They couldn’t do that with mushrooms or carrots without people changing the channel.

XIII

Tomato is the name given to the edible fruit of domesticated plants of the genus Solanum lycopersicum. Wild tomatoes are indigenous to the Andes mountains, probably in modern-day Peru and Ecuador. They were first domesticated somewhere in Central America, roughly around three thousand years ago.

This series is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird. David McKenzie looks every month at the most normal food you can imagine and offers a fresh view on it. In thirteen different ways.

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