Tomatoes a-plenty

Caprese salad by Elaine WebberI say “toMAYto” and my husband, the Brit, says “toMAHto,” but unlike George Gershwin, we’re not calling the whole thing off!

Every year we live in hope of fresh tomatoes from the garden. What could be better than biting into a ripe, juicy tomato still warm from the sun? You might be able to get something fairly close at a farmers’ market, but supermarket produce just doesn’t compare.

Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow. One summer, when we lived in a circa-1920s second-story apartment with tall, southern-facing windows and wide window ledges, we grew them in pots outside our living room. Even though we do everything right – plant after the danger of frost is over, plant in a different spot than the previous year, make sure the plot has good drainage and gets lots of sun – we can never be sure we’ll have a good harvest. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate. Sometimes our plants are stricken with a disease or blight.

This year is not spectacular, perhaps due to cool temperatures and more than ample rain. But our five plants are producing more than enough to meet our own gustatory needs.

Just imagine a world without the tomato. No pizza. No tomato sauce for pasta or lasagne. No BLTs. No cream of tomato soup with your grilled cheese sandwich. It’s probably one of the most widely grown food crops, and probably one of the most versatile. Think of how many ways we use it: juiced, in soups, salads, casseroles, stews and sauces. There’s even a recipe for a cake using a can of tomato soup. It used to be in The Joy of Cooking, but my current edition has taken it out. I found this version on the Web, but I haven’t tried it so I’m not making it this week’s official recipe.

Tomatoes in my garden

Tomatoes in my garden

A Central American native

The tomato originated in Central America, and we have Christopher Columbus and the other Spanish conquistadores to thank for introducing it to the world. They took it to Spain, where it spread throughout Europe, and to the Philippines, where it spread to Asia.

Europeans were initially suspicious of the shiny fruits, which were probably golden rather than red. After all, they’re botanically in the same family as nightshade, with its deadly berries.  At first tomatoes were grown as an ornamental plant, but by the early 1600s, tomatoes were being used as food.

The earliest discovered cookbook using tomatoes was published in Naples in 1692.

The word “tomato” comes from a Nahuatl word, tomatoti. The Italians named it pomo d’oro – golden apple, which isn’t surprising since those early tomatoes were probably yellow, rather than red.

The world’s largest tomato, which weighed 7 lb., 12 oz., was grown by Gordon Graham on Edmond, Oklahoma in 1986.  The world’s largest tomato plant, at Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida, produced 32,000 tomatoes in one season. Since I have fresh basil in my garden this summer as well as tomatoes, it’s a great time to make a Caprese Salad! It’s a very easy recipe. The only other ingredients you need are fresh mozzarella, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

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