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Illustration by Cindy Couling

Hot Tomatoes

The versatile love apple is Central America's gift to the world--the time is ripe to romance it

By Christina Waters


IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE that Julius Caesar never tasted a tomato, especially considering that his empire gave us indoor plumbing and spectator sports. But he didn't, which is probably why he was assassinated. After all, what good is an emperor who can provide good roads and bridges but can't give us linguine with red sauce?

Today tomato flavor is synonymous with Italian cooking, which arguably couldn't have reached its dazzling heights without tomatoey inspiration. And it's impossible to imagine any cuisine--save Japanese and Scandinavian--that doesn't rely on this delicious botanical.

Let's do some visualization. Try to imagine a world without pizza. A cheeseburger without ketchup. A salad without cherry tomatoes. It's a grim picture, I agree.

Consider Charlemagne, Mary Magdalene, Leonardo di Vinci, Aristotle, Mohammed, the builders of the pyramids--none of them ever 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 conquistador Cortez hit the shores of the New World in 1532. After they'd finished ripping off the natives in every other way, the Spanish soldiers brought back seeds of the tomato, which took instantly to the warm climate of the Mediterranean.

Native to Mexico and Central America, tomatoes were cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as far back as 700 c.e. In the 16th century, tomatoes 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 creeping into sauces in southern France, where they were considered aphrodisiacs by the romantic French, who dubbed them pommes d'amour, "apples of love."

Typically, the unvoluptuous British didn't take to the crimson fruit. Since the tomato belongs to the nightshade family, they 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 New England colonists shared the same paranoia until, that is, some culinarily gifted Creole cooks in New Orleans changed their minds with a well-placed plate of jambalaya. One taste of gumbo, and the rest was history.

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

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Taste Buds: Tomato factoids.

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HERE'S MY PROBLEM: The disgusting restaurant habit of serving barely ripe, tasteless, out-of-season tomatoes. The whole tomato mania has gotten so out of control that Americans cannot sit down to a plate devoid of tomatoes. Our standards are so low that almost any tomato will do, even if it is obviously old, tired and tasteless.

Why can't we face the fact that fresh tomatoes only have flavor during their natural harvest season, which in California is roughly Aug. 15 through Nov. 1. Eat them then--and then wait patiently like the rest of us until next year, instead of turning tricks with low-rent, out-of-season tomatoes that have traveled for days to reach your table. What's wrong with a little anticipation? With working up a powerful craving for the Real Thing once it finally comes to market?

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 smartest chefs, from Alice Waters to John Ash, simply remove fresh tomatoes from their menus. Instead, they use high-quality preserved, sun-dried, canned and stewed produce.

You may want to remind me that there's no need to make a big deal out of "tomato season," since you've been buying tomatoes all year long in your local supermarket. Yes, dear reader, you have. But when was the last time any of those February tomatoes had any flavor? (Unless, that is, they were purchased in California from growers in Baja California where it is tomato season in February.)

It doesn't take an Einstein to realize that something so perishable, that requires such a long, hot growing season, can't last. But Yankee ingenuity found a way to fake out Mother Nature by growing tomatoes all year long under artificial hothouse conditions.

Restaurateurs feel helpless about the situation--or so they tell me. When asked about the pathetic slices of greenish cardboard they put on off-season salads, they whine that "consumers demand them." Consumers need to be educated. Why not demand something worth demanding? Are we all robotic sheep? Conditioned by years of cafeteria lunches to habitually eat anything--margarine? gooey white bread? canned peaches for crissakes?--put before us? If something lacks flavor, why bother opening your mouth for it? Life's too short to waste time on mediocrity.

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

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From the September 6-13, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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