So They Call Us Tomato Lovers
So they call us Tomato Lovers? So what? Across this country and across the planet, there are tens of thousands of us Tomato Lovers. Ever have a tomato sandwich with a dash of salt, olive oil, and a sprinkle of fresh-cut basil on Italian ciabatta bread? What’s not to love?
Inhale a little of la dolce vita, for at one time in our life we were all amateur gardeners. We grew gardens big enough to feed our robust families and supply ingredients for Nonno’s and Nonna’s delicious hobbies.
Then, as the world moved on, families found it more efficient to buy a variety of grocery store, no-taste, hothouse tomatoes for salads and sandwiches, and even bought factory-made red pasta sauces. We were busy. We got used to the bland flavor.
But our family had Uncle Tony. Zio Tony. And one day, we tasted a tomato that he had grown in his backyard garden. That was the day we discovered the aroma (momma mia!) and the true taste of a home-grown tomato. My fifteen-year-old taste buds were spoiled for life. The next time I saw him, I begged him to tell me his secrets for growing such delicious tomatoes. Uncle Tony, always ready to give a lesson, sat me down and proceeded with the first of many lectures concerning the noble tomato. Here are some of the highlights of what I learned from those lectures.
Hernán Cortés, an early Spanish explorer, in 1519 found tomatoes growing in Mexico and used as food by the Aztecs. When he returned to Spain, to the great relief of the Aztecs, he brought back tomato seeds as part of the plunder, along with the piles of shiny gold. The first tomato plants to bear fruit in Europe were the yellow variety, not the red. Because of the yellow color and resemblance in shape and size to the apple, it was the Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrea Mattoli, who in 1548 named the fruit “golden apple,” which translates in Italian to Pomi d’oro and today’s Pomodoro. The Nahuatl word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word tomate, and on to the English tomato.
Uncle Tony went on to say that the first Italian cookbook to include tomato sauce, The Modern Steward, by Chef Antonio Latini, was published in Rome in 1692. Gardeners and cooks were mostly on their own until 1937, when Giovanni & Assunta Cantisano founded the Ragu Packing Company in Rochester, New York. He then asked me the meaning of the Italian word Ragù. Though I loved my uncle dearly, I told him that I was not a complete idiot, and that any observant Italian-American knows that Ragù is a hearty gravy, with chunks of beef, tomatoes, and finely chopped onions, celery, and carrots. With a sheepish look on his face, he changed the subject by saying that it was time for me to be a real Italian and learn about Pomodoros.
And don’t forget this review excerpt about John Mariani’s book:
How Italian Food Conquered the World
“Not so long ago, Italian food was regarded as a poor man's gruel - little more than pizza, macaroni with sauce, and red wines in a box. Here, John Mariani shows how the Italian immigrants to America created, through perseverance and sheer necessity, an Italian-American food culture, and how it became a global obsession.”
It was late summer when Zio appeared on our doorstep with more tomatoes and a basket of determination. “Okay sonny, you’ve had two months to read the tomato books I told you to get. If you don’t get at least 50% of these questions, you’ll have to hoe my entire garden in the spring.”
I was ready. “Fa bene, do your best, Zio. Ask away!”
“Domanda numero uno: (1) This tomato’s unique early ripening, from 50 to 62 days, is very popular with home tomato growers. Tell me its name.”
“That’s an easy one, Zio, it’s ?.” All answers can be found at end of quiz.
“ Umm, bene, you’re right. My list of tomato questions are ready. No discussion. Just answer the questions. If I don’t say anything, your answer is correct.
(2) What cocktail tomato is noted for its juiciness, high sugar content, low acidity?”
Remember, all the answers are found after question #15.
(3) “Tomatoes are the most concentrated food source of what important antioxidant?”
“Zio, you look shocked.”
“No talking, until you miss a question.”
(4) “ Sauce recipe usually made with tomatoes, garlic, basil, & onions?”
“ Ha, no meat!, in English, Mariner’s sauce.”
(5) “Italian favorite since early 19th century, named for this Italian port city of Genoa?”
(6) “Variety of Italian plum tomatoes considered by chefs to be the best of pasta tomatoes?”
(7) “Sizes range from thumb tip to golf ball?”
(8) “Synonymous with tomatoes, Italian-American brand name means ‘woman of the fields’?”
(9) “Botanically a fruit, for culinary purposes it is what?”
(10) “Many weigh in excess of one pound and are the largest varieties of cultivated tomatoes?”
(11) “Type of tomatoes that lack a genetic mutation that gives tomatoes an appealing, uniform red color?”
(12) “The tomato originated from what South American mountain range?”
(13) “Tomato is a member of the solanaceae family of flowering plants, also known as?”
(14) “The distinct features of this tomato are the characteristic dark green and yellow stripes?”
“You know sonny, I’m very proud of you. This was a tough quiz. But I have saved this super tough question just in case you got the first fourteen correct. Even I did not know the answer. If you get this one correct, you will be the master and I will be your student. Here we go.
(15) “This now-famous tomato has almost a cult following among seed collectors and tomato connoisseurs. Identify this Russian heirloom tomato that was named in honor of what American opera singer? Now take your time, sonny.”
“Zio mio, I hate to do this to you, as you will always be my master but the answer is ???????????????????????????????????????
“I give up! Let’s go get some gelato. But you should come over in the spring anyway so I can teach you to break up dirt clods.”
See the rest of my blogs on my book website. Also new blogs weekly:
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1] Early Girl
5] Costoluto Genovese
6] San Marzano tomato
7] Cherry tomato
9] A vegetable
10] Beefsteak tomato
14] Green Zebra
15] Paul Robeson