2016-08-01 / Dishing

A Torrent of Tomatoes

Anne Quinn Corr

Tomatoes are the most popular homegrown vegetable in the country, according to the USDA. This fruit that acts as a vegetable is the prize of the home gardener, eliciting fierce pride and competitive spirit. Sixteen years ago, while writing a mid-August column for the Centre Daily Times about tomatoes, I worked myself into a frenzy while reading about the history of the tomato and remembering the Jersey tomatoes of my youth. Hucksters used to trawl the alleys in my Philly neighborhood, their singsong refrain selling “Jer-zey tomatoes! Three pounds, a half a dollar!” Mothers streamed out of their kitchens, purchasing perfectly ripe fruit from the Garden State. I needed to taste that tomato again. I also wanted to enter a Jersey tomato into the first Tait Farm Tomato Festival that was occurring that weekend. I had a mission.

I jumped in my car and drove five hours to Fortescue, New Jersey, where my friend Allen Will ran a bait shop on the shores of Delaware Bay. When he heard of my mission, Will closed up the shop and we jumped into his pickup truck and drove to the farm of an old timer who handed us paper grocery bags and told us to help ourselves to the tomatoes at his farm. We filled the bags and left, waving thank you and goodbye, stopping at a grocery store for two essentials — Wonder bread and Hellman’s mayo. Back at Will’s kitchen we assembled tomato sandwiches with a judicious sprinkle of salt and sometimes even pepper until we ran out of bread. We took them to the dock where we ate them with the juice dripping down our arms to our elbows. That was the taste that I was after.

Those Jersey tomatoes entered the first tomato taste off and showed well, impressive in size and flavor, but they didn’t make first place. The local tomatoes won that year, which is quite the point — a tomato needs to come from the earth beneath your feet to taste its best. Centre County tomatoes taste best in Centre County; Delaware Valley tomatoes, right where they are grown.

Tait Farm will hold the 16th annual Tomato Festival on Saturday, Aug. 20 this year, and local tomato growers are invited to enter their homegrown tomatoes in a contest conducted by Penn State Master Gardeners. Where else can you sample more than 60 varieties of tomatoes in their prime? Will the incredibly sweet Sun Gold, an orange cherry tomato hybrid developed in Japan in 1992, win again? Will the Pink Cadillac, a Western PA heirloom resuscitated by local resident John Koritko after a disappearance of more than two decades, be available for tasting? Tomato growers are generous with their fruit in August, when their vines are loaded, and if you like a certain variety you can connect with the growers on the spot and do some good old-fashioned seed swapping for the heirlooms. Hybrid lovers, you will need to buy the plants next year, but you will know what to look for.

Tomatoes with their stem attached will lose moisture more slowly and will keep fresh longer than those with stems removed. To speed the ripening process of picked tomatoes, place the tomatoes in a paper bag with a ripe apple.

In addition to the tomato tasting, there will be two cook-offs that afternoon. At 1:15 p.m. the professional category competition will commence with area chefs creating fresh tomato dishes on site for a people’s choice vote. At 2 p.m. amateurs will compete, armed with family recipes and a friendly crowd to cheer them on. The public will choose the winners in each category and get to witness history.

Continually evolving, the tomato needs another chapter. Research reveals that there was a name change in 2005 — who knew? Currently the accepted scientific name is Solanum lycopersicum. Lycopersicum esculentum, Greek and translating to “edible wolf’s peach,” is the old scientific name used from 1768 to 2005. The change returns the original nomenclature used by Linnaeus in 1753. Genus name changes are an unusual occurrence, and the fact that the tomato continues to undergo such scrutiny shows the significance of the plant that was one of the major gifts of the New World in the 16th century.    

A member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, the tomato is a tropical perennial that is indigenous to the Andes and was domesticated in Mexico. The Spaniards brought tomatoes to Europe after the Conquest in 1523, and Italians living in Naples, a Spanish possession at the time, were smitten. The Italian love affair with the tomato resulted in a cuisine largely dependent on the luscious marinara sauces that define Italian cooking. However, tomatoes took a long time to reach other European tables. Linked by botanists to poisonous members of the nightshade family like mandrake and belladonna, tomatoes were regarded very suspiciously throughout Europe until the middle of the 19th century. The “love apples,” whose leaves and stems are indeed toxic, were grown in gardens as ornamental plants, not for food.

Consequently, early settlers in America were also suspicious of tomatoes, though Thomas Jefferson grew them in his garden in 1781. According to legend, the tide started to change in 1820 when Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the steps of the Salem County courthouse before a gathering of his fellow citizens to publicly consume a tomato and challenge the popular negative opinion. He didn’t die, or become ill, and the Garden State tomato, which drove a huge industry that included Campbell’s, Heinz and DelMonte during the first half of the 20th century, staked a claim.

Commercial tomato production started around 1900 and increased throughout the first half of the century. Then, in the 1950s and ’60s, Americans’ lust for tomatoes goaded growers into mass-producing them and breeding for superior shipping qualities rather than for taste. We can see the result of those modern production techniques in typical grocery store tomatoes — pale, cottony orbs. Picked unripe and immature, commercial tomatoes are gassed with ethylene to make them turn red. Tomatoes that are left on the vine to ripen produce their own ethylene, a hormone produced by all plants, and the natural ripening process occurs slowly, about six days after the first color appears.

More than any other vegetable, the perfect tomato can only be appreciated in season when, with one taste, the flavors dance across the tongue, stimulating the receptors for sweet, salty and sour: epitomizing the meaning of umami, or lusciousness. Don’t miss it this summer! •SCM


2 ½ lbs. tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 lb. cucumbers, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
2 oz. fresh white bread crumbs
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
½ c. olive oil
¼ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper

2 oz. onion, diced small
2 oz. cucumber, diced small
2 oz. green pepper, diced small

If blender is available, process all ingredients in the blender until liquefied. If a blender is not available, combine all ingredients except the olive oil. Pass through a food mill. If a smoother soup is desired, then pass through a fine sieve. Rub the solids through the sieve to purée them. Place the mixture in a stainless-steel bowl. Using a wire whip, slowly beat in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper and adjust seasoning to taste. If necessary, adjust the tartness by adding a little lemon juice or vinegar. Chill the soup thoroughly.

Combine the garnish ingredients in a small bowl. At service, top gazpacho with garnish mixture. If desired, soup may be served with ice cubes.

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