Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780


July 15, 2002

Behold the Vine-Ripened Tomato

By Bailey Thomson

I have heard there are people who have never tasted a tomato from the vine. They know only the artificially ripened substitute that grocery stores sell. Pity.

A sublime pleasure this time of year is to grace the table or a sandwich with slices of garden-grown tomatoes. Upon the first bite, the mouth tingles with the slightly tart taste, as juice bathes the palate. We wait for weeks in anticipation of this experience, swearing off the ersatz store-bought reds. Vine-ripened tomatoes signal the passage into summer, when the heat rewards the gardenerís patience and work with fruit mellowing against the green foliage.

The tomato actually is a berry, according to my sources. It began its journey to our households centuries ago in the Andes. The Spaniards found cultivated plants in Mexico and brought them back to the Mediterranean, where the tomato became the base for rich sauces. Gradually, tomatoes developed into what we recognize today as fist-sized delicacies with smooth skin and succulent flesh.

In the Old World, communities cultivated special varieties. You can buy seeds of such heirloom plants and grow them yourselves. They may produce yellow or pear-shaped fruit that is specially suited for pastas or other culinary purposes. Most of us, however, get our vine-ripened tomatoes from well-known hybrids that are household names.

Thus when the frost is finished and the ground begins to warm, gardeners plant Better Boys and Big Beefs and Celebrities and dozens of other varieties that have proven their growing power. We sacrifice the distinctiveness of the heirlooms for the disease resistance and productivity of the hybrids. I plant half a dozen varieties, and they all load their branches with fruit that is, to me anyway, indistinguishable in taste but consistent in quality.

English-speaking Europeans were slow to accept this gift from the New World. They did not trust the tomato plant, which too closely resembled the deadly nightshade for comfort. People in the former English colonies did not begin to consume tomatoes until the 19th century. I suppose those early consumers were a bit like the first people who ate oysters: Once they got past the first bite, the adventure was all pleasure. By the centuryís end, however, enthusiasts were turning out dozens of hybrids, often with distinctive regional names. For example, Alabama offered the Jeff Davis in honor of its former Confederate president. Moreover, canning made tomatoes available to cooks year-round and brought us tomato soup.

Alabamaís George Washington Carver, the plant wizard of Tuskegee Institute, considered tomatoes ideal for the Southís vitamin-starved poor people. But eating habits can be difficult to change, especially in a region that fries even its bread. The tomato became instead the star of middle-class gardens, and it remains today the most popular vegetable. By one estimate, 35 million home gardens in this country produce tomatoes. The plants grow in every region, though sometimes with the assistance of green houses.

Meanwhile, the American appetite for tomatoes seems insatiable, and fast food only accentuates the craving. Among my daughterís first words were pickle, tomato and lettuce. Today she and her friends consume gallons of tomato sauce from pizza. Sam Cox reports from Colorado State that Americans eat on average nearly 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes annually. The late Mr. Carver might be pleased to know that the tomato is, pound for pound, our single most important source of vitamins and minerals.

I like to go out into my garden late of an afternoon and gently pick that eveningís table treat. A few gourds of squash usually are available from the tomato plantsí prolific neighbors, and my okra has begun to bear as well. A couple of bell peppers and a handful of the hotter varieties top off the basket. Iíve already got the ground cleared for my fall peas, and I may add some pole beans. And yes, I have younger tomato plants coming along, too. Theyíll keep the family and friends supplied until frost.

Lately at night, Iíve been poring over seed catalogs. Iím thinking about adding a few heirlooms next year: Yellow Pear. Black Krim. Old Virginia and, most certainly, Mortgage Lifter. Now thereís a name behind a story and a tribute to how much we prize this joy of the vine.

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