Corn is coming in and the darlings of summer, tomatoes, can be bought for the cost of a grass-fed beef burger. Last week, I paid $8 for four tomatoes. I justified the cost by telling myself a couple of slices of crisp bacon, a layer of fresh lettuce, along with a thick slice of tomato on good bread would a supper make.
Holding a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich in hungry hands is the best of summer’s offerings. This year, it is a culinary experience requiring a trip to the ATM machine.
Michelle Goodman, who lives at “Oakton” and gardens with her husband, Will, is still waiting for their 40 tomato plants to show red, bearing fruit or vegetable, (whichever you prefer.) She has garden-grown flowers at the market, lovely, and crisp, early apples, but nary a ripe tomato.
Tomatoes are taking their time, still green orbs, their DNA confused by a rainy summer with no stretch of hot, dry days to remind them their job is to turn color and plump up with fleshy, sweet offerings, just right for a stand-over-the-sink tomato sandwich.
Tomatoes have been grown in English gardens since the late 1500s. Surely, their weather was as cranky as ours, but the British landed gentry avoided the kitchen garden newcomer, fearing it was poisonous.
Finally, a plant sleuth discovered it was the flatware, made of pewter with a high lead content, as culprit. The acid in tomatoes caused the lead to leech into food, and lead poisoning sickened those who ate above the salt.
English country folk, eating with their fingers and on plates made of wood, claimed summertime tomatoes as their own for, literally, 200 years until flatware improved and explorers came home with tomato seeds, improving the British palette.
Across the pond, it took another hundred years before immigrants from Italy left Ellis Island with tomato seeds in their pockets and Spanish immigrants brought them off the boat.
In the early 1800s, tomatoes were sold in French markets in New Orleans and Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph, put together a cookbook that included recipes for tomato marmalade and Spanish gazpacho.
But it was the dedication of farmers, tomato growers, who fiddled with seeds, coming up with a thinner-skinned tomato with firm flesh, aptly named the “trophy tomato,” and raising the bar on flavor and appeal.
By 1870, Col. George Waring, living in Newport, R.I., had purchased trophy tomato seeds, selling them for a quarter each. Quite a sum for the time, but Waring was also offering $100 for the “heaviest tomato” grown.
Today, we can choose from heirloom tomatoes, open-pollinated, their seeds saved and replanted or hybrids like the “Big Boy” variety. A gardener can save the seeds, but the plant will not reproduce in its former state.
In the years since Waring’s day, 90 varieties of tomatoes have been identified and they are, many of them, the most widely grown vegetables in home gardens today.
It’s fitting to end this little history lesson on tomatoes by letting their names roll off our tongues, one or two as Southern as a hot summer’s day.
In our small patch, green tomatoes are still looking for a week of sunshine, not yet found, so nowhere in sight is a “Georgia Streak,” an “Arkansas Traveler,” a “Missouri Pink Love Apple” or a “Royal Hillbilly.”
I’m counting on garden bounties more fruitful. When the scale grows heavy at the farmers’ market, I swallow hard and pay up, knowing a tomato is not only good eating, it has survived identity theft.
Tomatoes were considered a fruit until the late 1800s when the Supreme Court ruled them a vegetable, taxed accordingly. No farm bill in those days, my friends.
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.