Someone once said: “Gardening is cheaper than therapy…and you get tomatoes.” I think that pretty much sums up why I do it – all those hours spent digging, weeding, feeding, composting, pruning, watering – losing myself in these chores, enjoying the great outdoors…and then the reward: those sweet, juicy tomatoes.
I call myself a transplanted New Yorker (the gardening pun is intentional), having moved to England many years ago. I grew up in the Westchester County suburb of Pleasantville where my mother had a small garden in which – I admit to my shame — I never took the slightest interest. It was upon marrying an Englishman and moving to the beautiful Sussex countryside that my addiction to gardening began. The gardening bug bit me and I’m still infected. Americans would say I’ve developed a green thumb; the Brits say I have green fingers. But as far as I’m concerned, I happily use both of my hands and all the digits on them to make things grow.
Although my mother grew flowers, she never grew vegetables. But Alan, my English husband, did. And oh! The joy of growing things that you could pick and then actually eat. That’s when my love affair with the tomato really took off. It’s also when I started pronouncing the word ‘to-mah-to’ – as a direct response to Alan’s off-key rendition of the song lyric, ‘You say to-may-to…and I say to-mah-to’.
Back to the facts. I always knew tomatoes were nutritious. The list is long – Vitamins A, C, E and K, plus potassium and dietary fiber. They’re low in cholesterol and calories, and their sweetness satisfies my craving for candy. What could be more divine than to pop a freshly-picked, burnished Sungold tomato into one’s mouth, toasty warm from the sun?
Tomatoes are grown virtually all over the world but did you know that they originated in South America? And that wild ones can still be found in the Andes? The Aztecs and Incas are said to have cultivated tomatoes as early as 700 A.D. It was, in fact, the Aztecs who gave them the name tomatl which the Spanish, who conquered and settled in Latin America, changed to tomate…from which we get our word, tomato. During colonial times, people shunned tomatoes because, as members of the same family as deadly nightshade, they were thought to be poisonous. Evidently, Thomas Jefferson grew them, and his daughters and granddaughters used tomatoes in recipes, including gumbo soup.
When the tomato was introduced to Europeans, there was again controversy about its possibly toxicity. The reality was that the upper classes ate off pewter plates, which have a high lead content. The tomato’s natural acidity would leach into the lead, resulting in sickness and even death. In contrast, poorer people who could only afford wooden plates, if any plates at all, had no such problems with the tomato. The turning point was the ‘invention’ of the pizza in Naples in 1880 which made the tomato popular in Europe as well as in the Americas. Nowadays, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each of us consumes close to 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes each year.
New Jersey’s nickname is the ‘Garden State’ – so it comes as no surprise that their state vegetable is the tomato. In Arkansas, it’s not only the state vegetable but also the state fruit. A fruit? I hear you ask in disbelief. Yes, botanists insist that the tomato is technically a fruit. This is because it develops from the fertilized ovary of a flower and has seeds. The tomato is in good company because squash, cucumbers, beans, eggplant and bell peppers also fall into this fruit vs veg trap. British journalist and broadcaster, Miles Kington, really nailed it when he said: “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Geography has a lot of influence on how I have to grow my tomatoes. Believe it or not, London is more northerly than both Quebec and Toronto, and although, thanks to the Gulf Stream, our winters here are milder than theirs, we still can’t count on sunny, hot summers. So it’s in the greenhouse that I grow those gorgeous tomatoes I keep talking about. Over the years, I’ve successfully grown a range of standard varieties, including Shirley, Moneymaker, Gardeners Delight, Beefsteak, Alicante and so on. But it was a totally serendipitous purchase of a tomato plant called Luciebell that further ensured my love affair with the tomato. I came upon it in a completely unlikely place – a large store that’s rather like the British equivalent of Walmart. The tomatoes that resulted were divine – elongated in shape like a plum tomato, petite and sweet. Buying this plant was a complete fluke – I’d never seen Luciebells before or since in local garden centers — so I did what any proper gardener would do: I scooped out some seeds, dried them, put them in an envelope to store over the winter for spring planting. I’ve been doing this for the past four years…and a healthy crop of Luciebells has graced our kitchen table ever since.
Produce from our vegetable garden is never wasted. Our neighbors are often the beneficiaries of any over-production. That includes tomatoes. Besides obviously putting them in salad, I also use my home-grown tomatoes in making soup – gazpacho to enjoy chilled in the summer, and tomato and basil which I freeze to savor in the dark winter months. Remembering the tomato’s exotic origins, I make great use of them in Italian recipes, such as bruschetta and pasta sauce. Also in French dishes such as ratatouille. And Spanish ones, too – salsa. Any tomatoes that haven’t ripened by the end of the season are ideal for the green tomato chutney I produce every fall.
To my utter disbelief, there are actually people on this earth who do not like the tomato. We have friends – though, perhaps, they’re now ex-friends – who fit in this shameful category. Their names are Phil and Sue. Phil plays golf regularly with Alan so when my dear husband asked if we could invite them to dinner I, of course, said yes. And as I do with all guests who come to us for the first time, I phoned to determine if there was anything they were allergic to or particularly disliked. No allergies, but Sue told me she disliked salad and Phil disliked fish. Very straightforward – or so I thought – and I planned the menu accordingly. Our starter was bruschetta for which I used garlic, basil and tomatoes – all from our garden. The main dish was chicken – with rice. Accompaniments were home-grown French climbing beans and ratatouille, made with garlic, basil, onions, peppers, zucchini and tomatoes – all from our garden.
When I served the starter, Phil asked, “Is there garlic in this?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied. “It’s Italian.” I assumed those two words would justify my generous use of garlic. “And the garlic is from our garden,” I added proudly.
“Sorry, but I don’t eat anything with garlic.” I was crestfallen. And then rather annoyed. They’d told me about the fish and the salad, but why hadn’t they mentioned the garlic?
“And I’m afraid I don’t eat tomatoes,” Sue added.
“But these tomatoes aren’t raw – they’re not in a salad. They’re cooked,” I said through gritted teeth. “In extra virgin olive oil.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” she said cheerfully, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’ll make up for it with the main course.”
Naturally, neither of them would touch the ratatouille because of the garlic and the tomatoes.
Then came the dessert. I served strawberry ice cream (yes, homemade, using strawberries from our garden). That went down a treat. At least they didn’t suddenly spring on me that they were lactose intolerant.
They were profuse in their thanks when they left our home but I was not a happy bunny.
At breakfast the next morning, Alan said, “I guess you won’t want to invite them over again.”
I peered at him through narrowed eyes. “I’ll do it if I have to…but not for many, many months.”
“I understand completely,” he said, nodding. “By the way…what are we having for lunch today?”
“Grilled cheese and home-grown tomatoes on toast.”
“I can’t think of anything I’d like more,” he grinned, giving me a conciliatory hug.
Laurie Colwin, who used to write for Gourmet magazine, put it perfectly: “A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.” That’s certainly music to my ears.