On or about the last day of June, I’ll sashay out to my home tomato patch, pick the biggest, juiciest Beefsteak tomato I can find, cradle it in my trembling hands and rush to the kitchen, where I’ll carefully cut a thick slice and lovingly lay it on two fresh slices of white bread liberally coated with Duke’s mayonnaise.
With heart-pounding anticipation, I’ll slowly raise the giant “mater sandwich” to my mouth, take a huge bite and moan with ecstasy as sweet red juice runs down my chin, staining whatever shirt and trousers I happen to be wearing. Summer officially will have begun!
Horticulturists speculate that the tomato originated somewhere in the Andean Mountains of South America, possibly in the region we know as Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. It’s likely that animals and birds spread seeds of the wild cherry tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum var. cerasiforme) northward more than 2,000 miles to Central America, where it was domesticated by pre-Mayan Indians. It is from this wild species tomato that all modern tomatoes descended.
I had great fun several years ago growing this wild cherry tomato in my garden. The tiny tomatoes, only ¼ inch in diameter, were tasty but not nearly as sweet as modern hybrids. The vines, however, were exceedingly vigorous and almost took over my garden. It was easy to see why this aggressive species survived and spread from South America to northern Mexico.
Tomatoes have a long and interesting history. Botanical archives reference the Spanish conquistador Cortez who, around 1520, took tomato seeds back to Spain. The novel New World fruit quickly spread across southern Europe. Eventually, it made its way back to America with early colonists to the American East Coast. It took a considerable amount of time, however, before the tomato gained significant popularity in the American colonies. Its slow embrace was mainly due to the writings of botanists who linked the tomato with the poisonous Solanaceae, Nightshade, family.
A particularly humorous account regarding tomato as a food item occurred in Salem, New Jersey, in 1820. An adventurous colonel by the name of Robert Johnson distributed tomato seed to local farmers and encouraged them to grow fruits as large as possible. At the time, tomatoes were still largely grown for ornamental purposes. That changed, however, when Johnson announced that he would eat an entire basket full of tomatoes at the local courthouse.
A large crowd turned out for the event. Attendees were fully convinced that they were about to witness the good colonel’s demise. The crowd was doubly concerned when the colonel’s personal physician warned that Johnson would “foam and froth at the mouth, double over with appendicitis if the wolf peach (tomato) is too ripe and warmed by the sun, exposing himself to brain fever.” Needless to say, bystanders were greatly relieved that Johnson survived with no apparent ill effects. Tomatoes quickly became a standard part of the American diet, and by 1835, tomatoes were regularly available at local markets.
Today, tomatoes are the most popular fruit (vegetable) grown in American gardens. In 2017, approximately 1.4 million tons of fresh market tomatoes and 14.7 million tons of processing tomatoes were harvested with a total value of more than $1.67 billion. That’s a lot of tomato sauce and “mater” sandwiches!
While we’re still months away from tomato planting season, it’s not too early to begin ordering seeds. I’ve been super pleased over the past two seasons with two new, small fruiting, All American Selections varieties — Patio Choice Yellow and Midnight Snack. Patio Choice Yellow is the most prolific small fruiting tomato I’ve ever grown. It smothers itself in 2-inch diameter fruit that is low acid and mild in flavor. It’s a determinate tomato (bush type) that produces a huge early first crop followed by only modest production thereafter. Midnight Snack is one of the prettiest tomatoes I’ve grown. Flavor is great and, like most indeterminate (vining type) cherry tomatoes, is very prolific.
I doubt that either variety will be available on local seed racks this spring. But they are available by mail order. Check out the All American Selections website for mail order sources.
Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center and Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He may be reached by email: email@example.com.