Tomatoes, Dog Days, and Queen Margherita

Summer Heat and Canis Major

I’m hoping the bulk of the heat and humidity of July and August is pretty much behind us here on the Currant Farm, which means we’re coming to the end of the Dog Days of summer, or what the Romans called diēs caniculārēs.

The term associated with this oppressively hot period in July and August in the Northern hemisphere was actually used as far back as 330 BC when Aristotle discussed it in his famous 8 book work called “Lectures on Nature”, or commonly referred to today as “The Physics” (worth checking out). Back then, the heat during the middle of summer was thought to be brought on when the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog), Sirius, rose at the about same time as the sun thereby increasing the amount of heat from the heavens.

Interestingly, while this celestial pairing was true in the days of Aristotle, it no longer occurs today due to what’s called “the precession of the equinoxes.” It was believed that this period was an evil time during which seas boiled, wine soured, animals became sluggish, people became irritable and angry, and a whole list of other unpleasantries. I don’t know about the seas boiling and wine going bad but irritable people and sleeping dogs sure rings a bell.

On the other hand, this time of year produces something quite wonderful in the Currant Farm vegetable garden and that’s tomatoes! Red and yellow, purple and black and pink globes of juicy decadence which say summer to me more than just about any other food. Maybe if Aristotle had some tomatoes in his garden he wouldn’t have been so disparaging about the summer. The tomato is arguably the most common vegetable (more about that later) in the world. Its use as a food dates back to 500 BC in South America, most likely in the area of what is today Peru.

The Swelling Fruit

The word tomato comes from the Nahuatl (Azetecan) word tomatl, meaning “the swelling fruit.” Then it was probably a small yellow delicacy. When the Spanish started colonizing the Americas they, like most people, fell in love with it andbegan bringing seeds and plants wherever their travels led them. If you saw a Spanish ship in the harbor, you could pretty much be assured of finding tomatoes in the market. There’s some debate as to whether Cortés was the first to bring them back to Europe after conquering the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City, in 1521 or Columbus collected them 30 years earlier but the first mention of them in Europe was in a small botanical book written in 1544 by an Italian physician and botanist, Pietro Andrea Matttioli, who named it pomo d’oro meaning “golden apple.” In Italy, they’re still called pomodoro.

Tomatoes were reputed to be the cause of death of countless aristocrats

However, this reputation of this favored delicacy fell on hard times and was virtually banned from aristocratic recipes for over 200 years. Tomatoes were reputed to be the cause of death of countless aristocrats. Back then, the affluent Europeans consumed most meals from pewter plates. Pewter is very high in lead content and the high acidity of the tomatoes caused the lead to leach out into the food causing lead poisoning. The true chemical reaction was unknown, of course, so the tomatoes took the rap. The name for this hard-luck immigrant was changed from “Golden Apple” to “Poison Apple.” Interestingly, the poor only had wooded plates from which to eat so they were able to go on enjoying tomatoes, often in secret!

n the 1700s and early 1800s, the Greek kingdom of the port city Naples was home to throngs of working poor. Quick and nutritious meals were necessary for the busy lifestyle of these people who needed to eat quickly while working. The Neapolitans invented a flatbread topped with cheese, meat, fish, tomatoes, olive oil and whatever else was available. They were sold on the street by vendors and in simple restaurants. The same aristocrats who refused to eat the poison apple called this custom of eating these flatbreads on the run nauseating.

In 1861, Italy was united and Naples became an Italian city. In 1889, King Umberto I and Queen Margherita were touring the southern half of Italy and when they visited Naples, had the opportunity to sample the local fare. The story goes that they tried this provincial food called “pizza” from the local shop, Pizzeria Brandi which is still in business today now under the name Da Pietro pizzeria. The Queen loved the simple mozzarella, basil and tomato version so much, Signor Brandi named this version Pizza Margherita and its fame and this flatbread meal quickly spread throughout Europe. So it was that the lowly pizza was the beginning of the revival of the Tomato.Today, there are well over 7,000 varieties of tomatoes and whether grown in the garden, on the patio, in a greenhouse or hanging upside down, more tomatoes are grown in the U.S. than any other vegetable…ah…fruit.

“So what about cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, peas, beans and eggplant?” you cynics are asking. Well, a cook, addressing this, might have a different definition saying that a fruit is the part of the plant that’s sweet, edible and contains seeds. Simple enough unless you consider my beloved Currants which aren’t sweet at all and don’t forget cranberries. So, let’s approach it from the other side and try to define vegetables. The classic definition is any edible part of a plant “other” than sweet fruit or seeds.

Well, it may come as no surprise that there are not only botanical and culinary definitions but a legal one as well. Legally, vegetables are defined (are you ready?) by how they’re taxed!  This brings us full circle to our tomato just hanging on the vine out there in the sunshine, not thinking about Washington, D.C. at all. But Washington thought long and hard about the tomato and the matter went all the way to The Supreme Court.

The Great Tomato Debate

In 1887, U.S. import tariff laws imposed a duty on vegetables, but not on fruits. A vegetable, according to these laws was defined as “any commodity that is taxed as vegetables in a particular jurisdiction”. This law caused the tomato’s status to become a matter of legal importance. The U.S. Supreme Court settled the controversy on May 10, 1893, by declaring that the tomato is a vegetable, based on the popular definition at the time that classifies vegetables by use. That is, they are generally served with dinner and not dessert (Nix v. Hedden (149 U.S. 304).

The one thing I can tell you that I know to be true is that there are few pleasures in the world that compare to going out to the garden on a hot summer afternoon, when no one else is around, with a salt shaker stuck into the back pocket or your jeans, plucking the biggest, fattest, juiciest, sun warmed tomato, leaning way over the rich, black, garden soil and…

Cheers from the CurrantC Farm,