Summer is for Tomatoes

One of the things I look forward to about summer is fresh tomatoes. Whether you use them in salads, sandwiches, cooking or eat them plain, they are a delight. American’s consume 12 million tons of tomatoes each year making it the most popular vegetable in America. Tomatoes also have an interesting history.

Tomatoes originated in Central and South America. They are traced back to the Aztecs in 700 AD where they were considered to be an aphrodisiac.  Spanish explorers brought the tomato to Europe where it was originally thought to be poisonous because of its connection to the nightshade family of plants. Also wealthy people used pewter plates which reacted with the acidity of the tomatoes to cause lead poisoning. Poor people used wooden plates which didn’t have the toxic effect. It was in rural Italy where tomatoes became popular. By the mid 16th century they were mentioned in a Nepalese cookbook.

European settlers brought tomatoes with them to America where they were used at first as a decorative plant (many people still considered them to be poisonous). According to lore it was the invention of pizza in Naples in the late 1800’s that brought tomatoes to the masses. Good old pizza!

Tomatoes are technically a fruit since its seeds are surrounded by pulp however it is commonly regarded as a culinary vegetable. That’s an interesting story. In 1887 there was a US tariff law which taxed vegetables but not fruits. This meant that the increasingly popular tomato was not being taxed. The US Supreme Court actually passed a law in 1893 declaring tomatoes a culinary vegetable so it could be taxed. Still considered a vegetable basically because of its culinary uses at dinner rather than dessert.

There are two basic types of tomatoes, Determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are bush like which grow to 2 – 3 feet. The buds at the ends of the branches form flowers. The flowers then fruit all set at once giving one crop. Indeterminate tomatoes are vining types that need caging or stalking for support. They will continue to grow and set fruit until frost. They are generally later than determinate and produce more fruit over a longer time. For directions on how to prune tomato varieties go to: http://www.lsuagcenter.com/topics/lawn_garden/home_gardening/vegetables/home_garden_crops/pruningtomatoes

Over the years hundreds of varieties have been developed. These range in size from cherry tomatoes about an inch in diameter to large beefsteaks which can be 5-6 inches across. Colors vary widely as well. Tomatoes are no longer only red but can be deep crimson orange, yellow, green, purple, brown or combinations of these. The shapes are also widely varied.Some of the more popular are:

Cherry tomatoes can easily be grown in containers or in the ground. They are good for cooler, shorter growing seasons like ours. They are also wonderfully sweet and hard to resist popping a few in your mouth as you walk by. Great for salads or snacking.

Salad tomatoes from 2 – 3 inches are good for chopping into salads or slicing for sandwiches. They are usually a little tarter and juicier than cherry tomatoes.

Beefsteak tomatoes are large, heavy, meaty fruit. One can be a handful and weigh more than a pound. They are perfect for sandwiches and impressive slices on a platter with some mozzarella and basil.

Roma tomatoes are also called plum and are used for sauce and cooking. They have sweet firm flesh, not much juice or seeds. Perfect for a nice thick sauce. They store for a longer time and are perfect for drying or topping a pizza.

Heirloom tomatoes have been passed down through generations and are prized for superior flavor and excellent performance. Many of the unusual color and shaped tomatoes are heirloom. They are open pollinated which means they will come true to seed. This is what enables them to be passed along. Heirlooms are a popular trend with tomato gardeners.

Hybrid varieties have been bred for certain traits like higher yield, disease resistance, or in the case of commercial varieties, ease of harvesting and, extended shelf life. These tomatoes have been produced by crossing a number of varieties and will not come true to their seed. Disease resistance is one of the reasons to grow hybrid varieties. If you’ve had trouble with early or late blight look for disease resistant varieties.

Tomatoes need full sun to grow well. So if you can’t grow your own (like me) enjoy the bounty at local farmers markets or farm stands.