The Great Tomato

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The word tomato comes from the Nahuatl “tomatl”.

As a girl who grew up with a father who fancied himself an amateur farmer, it’s not surprising that tomatoes are part of my earliest (and fondest) childhood memories. Every winter, usually in late February when the bitter New England wind seemed endless and everyone had tired of the snow, my dad would begin receiving a steady flow of organic gardening magazines (or regular gardening magazines, in the mid-1990s, before the desire for organic went mainstream) and planting seeds he had saved from the previous year’s crop in the basement under a contraption of grow-lights. I would always ask him excitedly what he was going to plant this year. Cucumbers, eggplant, yellow squash, pole beans, herbs, cabbage, beets, and pumpkins, he would say, depending on his level of ambition. And, of course, tomatoes. Roma, grape, cherry, beefsteak, as many varieties as he could coax out of his garden in the backyard. Tomatoes are notoriously hard to grow in Connecticut because they need a warm summer and don’t like to be surprised by the occasional mid-season frost. A perfect tomato, or a perfectly lopsided tomato in our case, was always cherished by the time it finally ripened in August after weeks of gentle care and shooing away birds. I remember few things as vividly as walking through the garden picking bright red cherry tomatoes off the vine and popping them into my mouth, feeling the warmth of the sun on my tongue right before their juiciness exploded.

Given these experiences, it’s hard for me to believe people who say they don’t like tomatoes! But what kind of tomatoes do they mean, exactly, when they say this? The conventionally grown, perfectly round tomatoes with a faded red hue that are neatly stacked in most grocery stores during every month of the year? Surely they don’t mean the beautiful, uniquely misshapen tomatoes of my childhood or the ones you find sitting on farm stands in the summer. But taste is learned and, as Bourdieu writes, class distinguishes taste in many cases. Perhaps my love of tomatoes is just as dependent on nostalgia as it is on the fact that I grew up in a middle class family and my father spent his leisure time after work in the evenings and on weekends converting our backyard into a garden and teaching me how to measure stakes for pole beans and surround tomato plants with protective cages. As a fruit (not a vegetable!), my preference for tomatoes and familiarity with how they grow is a commentary on how I grew up and my socioeconomic status. As a food in general, my preference for tomatoes demonstrates the strong bonds we form with what we eat through memories and experiences. For me, a tomato means more than what it actually is. Foods gain positive and negative associations by passing through good and bad times in our lives with us. These associations are powerful and help make any discussion of what we eat personally and culturally relevant.

The tomato, despite its prevalence in cuisine found in the United States and across the globe, was originally found in only one place: South America, and more specifically the Peru-Chile border. (For a detailed description of tracing the roots of the tomato and its journey to multicultural integration, see this chapter from Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland.) Cortéz and his conquistadores brought it to Spain, where it then made its way around Europe and eventually back across the Atlantic to the North American colonies. Italian cuisine first adopted the tomato, which many did not enjoy the taste of at first (they had to learn to like it!), as a staple ingredient. By the time the Civil War broke out in the United States, the tomato was being marketed to the masses and canned for convenience – Union soldiers even left a trail of empty tomato cans in their wake upon exiting the south (Estabrook). Today, you can easily find hundreds of mouthwatering tomato recipes and probably have a few of your own memorized. (For some great ideas, try this trendy and delicious food blog.) The tomato, then, has been fully integrated into the cuisine and culture of more than one country since its sixteenth-century “discovery”. More than distinctions of class or taste, it represents the ability of food to become localized in new places after being transplanted from its original domain and is a recurring reminder of colonial exchanges. My six-year-old self would have been shocked to know that the tomatoes she was gobbling down had origins far deeper and much farther away than her father’s garden. But tomatoes are just one of the foods we consume daily that link us to other countries as well as our own nostalgia. Just like us, every food has a past and a transnational history. Finding out this history reveals our own tastes as well as larger relationships of trade, class, and power.

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