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Photograph by Traci Hukill
100 PERCENT FRESH: Legally a vegetable, botanically a fruit, the tomato has been making trouble for centuries.

Ripe Here, Ripe Now

The love apple is the New World's gift to everybody else

By Christina Waters

JULIUS CAESAR never tasted a tomato. Even though his empire gave us indoor plumbing, highways and spectator sports, the emperor never enjoyed linguine with red sauce. Today, tomato flavor is synonymous with Italian cooking, which arguably couldn't have reached its dazzling depth without this member of the nightshade family. And it's impossible to imagine any cuisine—save Japanese and Scandinavian—that doesn't rely on this delicious botanical.

Visualize a world without pizza. A cheeseburger without ketchup. A salad without cherry tomatoes. It's a grim picture. Consider that Charlemagne, Mary Magdalene, Leonardo da Vinci, Aristotle and King Tut never tasted the complex depths of a ripe tomato still warm from the sun. But it wasn't their fault. The arrival of the love apple in Europe and the Middle East had to wait until Cortez hit the shores of the New World in 1532. After sufficient pillaging, his conquistadores brought back seeds of the tomato plant, which took instantly to the warm climate of the Mediterranean.

Native to Mexico and Central America, tomatoes were cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas way back in 700 C.E. Nine centuries later, they arrived in Spain, where they were called tomate, a variation of the Native American tomatl. They quickly found their way to Naples and made gastronomic history by crossing over from medicinal to culinary usage in Italian cookery. The Italians called them golden apples, pomodori, and soon tomatoes were flavoring sauces in southern France, where they were dubbed aphrodisiacs by the romantic French, who called them pommes d'amour, or "apples of love."

The unvoluptuous British didn't take to the crimson fruit. Since the tomato belongs to the nightshade family, the Brits feared it might be poisonous. The fact that Italians, Spanish and French diners had been saucing around with the ruby red orbs for two centuries apparently failed to convince the Anglos. Early American colonists shared the same paranoia—until, that is, some culinarily gifted Creole cooks in New Orleans changed their minds with a well-placed bowl of jambalaya. One taste of gumbo and the rest was history.

In the late 1880s, the tomato was still legally classified as a fruit in the United States, and as such was subject to stiff tariffs. Some disgruntled merchants started making noise about the high taxes placed on tomatoes from the West Indies. On Feb. 4, 1887, the Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes were legally vegetables, and worldwide menus blossomed.

The tomato habit in the United States has gotten so out of control that, against their better judgment, Americans just cannot sit down to a plate devoid of tomatoes. Face it— fresh tomatoes only have flavor during their natural harvest season, which in California is roughly Aug. 1 through Nov. 1. That's the time to eat them, instead of faking it with unworthy, out-of-season tomatoes that have traveled for days to reach your table. What's wrong with a little anticipation?

Italian cooks—like old-fashioned cooks the world over—have always canned their pomodori after the rich harvests of late summer. That way they can enjoy the very best quality tomatoes all year long. When fresh tomato season is over, California's smart chefs, from Alice Waters to John Ash, simply remove fresh tomatoes from their menus, replacing them with high-quality preserved, sun-dried, canned and stewed produce.

Tomato time is here. Eat 'em like crazy while they're fresh, and then freeze or can the rest. You'll feel smug as you take tomatoes from your freezer in December and make a marinara worth remembering. You'll never, ever consume a shipped, out-of-season tomato again.

Tomato Secrets

• The scientific name for the common tomato is Lycopersicon (lyco = wolf; persicon = peach) esculentum ("edible"). Edible wolf peach. Somehow it makes sense.

• Americans consume more than 85 pounds of tomatoes every year— more than half in the form of ketchup.

• California produces more than 1 billion pounds of tomatoes annually.

• The tomato belongs to the same family as tobacco and the potato.

• Tomatoes are judged to be ready for commercial harvesting the same way that wine grapes are, by measuring their level of brix, an index of sweetness.

• There are more than 4,000 varieties of tomatoes cultivated today, ranging in color from yellow, pink, orange and red to deep maroon, purple and bright green. Sizes range from the thumbnail-size Sugar Babies to giant 3-pound Ponderosas.

• Never refrigerate a ripe tomato. Do not refrigerate unripe tomatoes either. If picked or purchased slightly yellow or green, tomatoes will happily ripen in two or three days on your kitchen counter. Put a tomato in the refrigerator only if you want it to lose its flavor, texture and nutritional value.

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