HISTORY AND CULTURE

Tomatoes Gonna Tomate; Poison, Witchcraft and Werewolves

27 Jul 2013 06.24 am by K. Daniel






An eponymous plant often associated with Italian and Mediterranean cooking, the tomato is a fruit which originally came from South America, more specifically Peru, where it was called tomatl by the Aztecs.

 

By the 16th century, its discovery and subsequent spread by Spanish conquistadors means that the tomato become more readily available in Europe, however it was not until the 18th century that it was commonly eaten. This was due to the belief that tomatoes were poisonous, and was grown as an ornamental plant rather than for its fruit.

 

The fact that it shared the same family group as the deadly nightshade did not aid its reputation. Remnants of this belief can be found in its scientific name, which can be traced back to German witch and werewolf myths. The story goes that deadly nightshades, a.k.a. belladonna, and mandrakes were of the few plants used by witches to summon werewolves. Thus tomatoes, being related to such plants, were associated with them as well, leading to its scientific moniker, Solanum lycopersicum, which translates to wolf peach.


From its humble (and grim) beginnings, today there are approximately 7500 varieties of tomatoes grown, each possessing unique qualities such as disease resistance, higher crop yields, better flavour, and longer shelf life. Currently, a popular phenomenon with backyard growers involves growing and consuming heirloom varieties, meaning that the variety grown were commonly grown during earlier periods in history but not commonly used in modern day agricultural practices. Quite like eating a trendy, more retro version of a commonly available fruit. Personally, I say if it results in better flavoured tomatoes than standard store bought generics, why not?


Too many times have I tasted tomatoes that were bland. They were tasteless and watery, none of the sweetness or slightly sour tang often associated with the red fruit. When cooked into sauces and stews, indeed the flavour concentrated and developed, but the longing for a simply decent tasting tomato that I could eat fresh lingers. No wonder some people do not enjoy these at all in their sandwich or salads.


Picking tomatoes is not really that hard. Of course putting the variety into consideration, there are a few methods to determine if it is of good eating quality. Colour is a slightly less reliable method simply because of the wide variety of appearance tomatoes come in, with some maintaining green coloration while ripe (Black Krim, Green Zebra), while others turn yellow (Mr. Stripey and Pear tomato varieties).

 

Green tomatoes are still edible and used in several dishes across various countries, however note that these are of mature size without the colour change, whereas smaller, immature ones tend to taste chalky and bitter. Green, mature sized tomatoes may be stored much like bananas and will turn red once ripe. As a matter of fact, commercially, tomatoes that you see in the supermarket bins tend to be picked while green (as opposed to sweeter vine ripened tomatoes) and ripened in a controlled environment. Growing your own means that you control the harvest when its at its best. Wolf traps optional.


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