You say tomato, I say tomato
Is a tomato a fruit or vegetable? Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in fruit salad. I disagree with that old adage, slightly. Tomatoes are delicious with watermelon, one of my favorite unexpected food pairings. Tomatoes are so versatile that they can show up in almost any recipe or cuisine from around the world. Let’s talk tomato!
History of the tomato
What’s in a name?
In the early days, tomatoes were only grown for decoration. Colonial folklore had it that tomatoes were poison and could turn blood into acid. Yikes! Tomatoes had a rocky start since they closely resemble the deadly nightshade. Good thing we have since found out they’re delicious.
The tomato took a while to classify. Botanists kept going back and forth with the scientific name because of their resemblance to the deadly nightshade. Early botanists, like Joseph Pitton de Tournefort first noticed their close relationship to nightshades of the Solanaceae family. Many plants under the Solanaceae family are indeed poisonous. He then classified them into the genus Lycopersicon, meaning wolf peach. So, yeah, strike two for tomatoes.
The name “wolf peach”, German translated from wolfpfirsich, refers to the tomato’s round shape that is reminiscent of a peach…while the “wolf” modifier came from the Germanic folk belief that werewolves could be summoned with members of the Solanaceae family, such as nightshade and wolfsbane.
Blood turning into acid and werewolves?! Tomatoes started off more like a horror movie than the rosy-red summer vegetable that is a staple of cooking.
In 1753, a botanist named Carl Linnaeus rejected Tournefort’s genus classification of Lycopersicon. Instead, he placed tomatoes into the Solanum family. But botanists are still not done messing with the tomato’s classification. Recently, they added esculentum to the scientific name to make it S. Lycopersicon esculentum.
This translates to “edible nightshade wolf peach”. A little more appetizing.
How it all began
Contrary to popular belief, tomatoes originally came from South and Central America — not Italy. Unlike North America colonists, the natives of South and Central America considered the tomato an aphrodisiac. Once the Spanish conquistadors came to the Americas, there was widespread cultivation of tomatoes. There is much debate about where tomatoes were first grown, and exactly how they traveled north to Mexico. However, most records point to Peru around the Andes as the first civilization to cultivate wild tomatoes. The conquistadors brought tomatoes back to Europe first, before crossing the border to North America. The tomato took a long way to end up on our dinner plates.
Americans couldn’t resist the lure of the pomme d’amour, French for “apple of love”. Thomas Jefferson fell hard for tomatoes and began growing them. The Jefferson women put tomatoes in gumbo soup and more, sparking national interest in cooking with tomatoes.
Fruit or vegetable?
Ever wonder why we consider a tomato a vegetable, even though it’s a fruit? You can lay part of the confusion on the U.S. Supreme Court, and maybe some on government greed. In 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed a 10% duty on vegetables, but none on fruit. A tomato importer named John Nix sued the tax collector for the port of New York, Edward L. Hedden, arguing that tomatoes, since they were “really” fruits, should be exempt from the tax.
Justice Gray wrote, “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people […] all these are vegetables […] which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are […] usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”
So, that’s how that decision was made — not science, just opinion. However, botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits, as they are the seed-bearing ripened ovary of a flower.
Tomatoes by the plenty
There are more than 15,000 known tomato varieties. Three thousand heirloom or heritage tomatoes are in active cultivation today. They range from small grape or cherry tomatoes to juicy salad tomatoes, meaty paste tomatoes and huge, sweet beefsteak tomatoes. Tomato colors range from deep crimson to orange and yellow. They can even be green, purple and chocolate.
Tomatoes are categorized based on how they grow. Determinate tomatoes are bush tomatoes. The buds at the ends of the branches form flowers instead of leaves. They flower all at once, set, ripen fruit, then die. Vine tomatoes are considered indeterminate tomatoes. They need caging or staking for support, but will continue to grow and fruit until frost kills them. These come later in the season than determinate tomatoes, and produce larger crops over a longer period.
Tomatoes can be found in many shapes, sizes and colors. They are all just as tasty.
Cherry Tomatoes and Grape Tomatoes
- Round, bite-sized and so juicy that they pop when bitten
- Grape tomatoes are half the size of cherry tomatoes
- Great for salads, skewers and snacks
- Try them blistered and marinated in this Caponata Salad with Castelvetrano Olives, Crispy Capers, Pine Nuts & Agro Dolce Raisins
- Sweet 100’s tomatoes, Sungold tomatoes and Black Cherry are some of our favorites
- More tart and juicy than cherry tomatoes and beefsteaks, with some acid to balance their sweetness
- Great for slicing onto sandwiches like the iconic BLT or salads like the classic Caprese salad
- Try grating into a vinaigrette in this Sumac & Sancho Pepper Grilled Salmon with Summer Squash
- Our favorites include Early Girl tomatoes, Green Zebra tomatoes and Enchantment tomatoes
- Big, thick, meaty tomatoes
- Prized for sandwiches — and one of the main reasons they’re grown
- Can grow up to three pounds, depending on the variety
- Takes long to grow and needs hot weather, so they are best in late summer or early fall
- Big Beef tomatoes, Brandywine tomatoes, Cherokee Purple tomatoes, Black Krim tomatoes and Hillbilly tomatoes are some of the best at the farmers market
- These are the Italian plum and San Marzano tomatoes of summer
- Contain more pectin than other tomatoes
- Less juicy and fewer seeds than other tomatoes
- Great for canning and tomato sauce
- San Marzano and Amish Paste tomatoes are among the best kinds
- Refers to unripe tomatoes or heirloom tomatoes that are green, such as Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomato, Evergreen tomatoes and Giant Green tomatoes
- Unripe tomatoes are best fried or pickled because of their firmness
- Green heirloom varieties can be treated like salad tomato or beefsteak varieties. Simply season with flaky sea salt and pepper to enjoy on a summer day
Hybrid Tomatoes vs. Heirloom
- Bred for higher yields, disease resistance and ease of harvesting
- A cross between different tomatoes. There’s little chance they’ll produce true to form from saved seeds like heirloom tomatoes. They usually revert to one of the parents, or some random combination of traits instead of the ones selected to increase yield and performance.
- For decades, plant breeders and seed companies focused on producing tomatoes that work with large-scale, mechanized production. That meant determinate tomatoes, which are easier and more predictable to harvest. But they went a step further and selected tomatoes with thick skins and less moisture.
- The most egregious example is the 12-mile-an-hour tomato, which was bred to withstand the impact of a mechanical tomato harvester. They’re harvested just as they turn pink, then gassed with ethylene to give them a reddish color. Unlike real tomatoes, they last for months after harvest. Such “tomatoes” are easier to harvest and get to market, so they gradually replaced better tomatoes in supermarkets. Consumers came to accept these mealy imposters because they had no other choice.
- Seeds are over 50 years old
- Beautiful, bright colors that resemble summer
- A bit misshapen, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder
- Prized for superior flavor and excellent performance
- Passed down through families and neighbors, then saved for generations
- Open-pollinated, they rely on natural pollination
- They reproduce reliably from saved seeds, unlike the cross-pollinated hybrid tomato
- These juicy, thin-skinned beauties can’t be shipped long distance
- Looks better on a plate
What to look for when buying tomatoes
- If you plan to eat the tomato in a few days, buy ones that are on the firmer side. It will soften up by the time you use it
- If you are going to eat the tomato within a day or two, buy one that has a little give when pressed, but not so much that it bruises or feels soft or mushy
- Try to buy tomatoes that are rich in color with little greening for peak ripeness
- Tomatoes should feel heavy for their size
- The top of the tomato where the stem was should look fresh and vibrant, not dried out
- Don’t be afraid of the cracks and odd shape of heirlooms because the taste makes up for it
- Tomatoes are best during summer to fall. Try to avoid buying tomatoes in winter, as they are most likely picked unripe and gassed with ethylene to redden them on their long journey from a foreign country.
- Store at room temperature
- Storing tomatoes in the refrigerator causes them to become mealy
- Store tomatoes in a single layer. This ensures they ripen evenly and don’t get crushed