A Brief History and Family Tree -The fruit we know as the tomato apparently goes back to South America, but it was not eaten there, being first domesticated in Mexico, and eaten by the Aztecs. The original fruit may have been yellow, rather than red. Spanish colonization efforts were largely responsible for the spread of the tomato from South America, even reaching as far away as the southeast portion of Asia.
The tomato is of the Nightshade family, according to scientific designation, and thus is part of the family that includes the potato, tobacco, and the eggplant. Although tomatoes are grown as if they were annuals and disposed of at the end of a season, they are actually a perennial, capable of living on under the correct conditions. I once grew a cherry tomato plant indoors that was in its second year, and was more than 11 feet in length.
Chemistry and Geography – In colonial times, the tomato was considered unsuitable to eat, if not poisonous. In fact, the vine itself does contain toxic substances similar to those appearing in the Deadly Nightshade plant, called glycoalkaloids. An alkaloid of this family has been associated with the potato, solanine. Perhaps you have heard that it is not good to eat a green potato? Tomatoes, on the other hand, are perfectly safe to eat, unless tainted from external sources of bacteria. In recent times, salmonella outbreaks have been attributed to tomatoes due to such contamination.
Mention the tomato and cooking, and perhaps the first things that come to mind are pizza and spaghetti sauce. One might guess that Italy must be among the largest producers of tomatoes, but in fact, it is not among the top five. China produces three times as much as the second largest producer, the United States, and Turkey, Egypt, and India follow the U.S.
Nutrition and Uses – Although the tomato vine contains toxic chemicals, quite the contrary is the case with the fruit itself. A chemical, lycopene, is present in tomatoes, is a powerful antioxidant, and it is useful in the battle against cancer. Lycopene is not the only antioxidant found in tomatoes, either. In addition, there are other health benefits. Nutritionally, tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C.
Enough statistics. Tomatoes have been bred for different end uses, and exist in quite a number of forms. One of my personal favorites is the beefsteak tomato. This tomato may be sliced in half-inch slices that are big enough to cover standard slices of white bread and still protrude beyond the edges. I did that and put a bit of mayonnaise on it, and there are few sandwiches that could begin to compare with such a taste treat. However, there are typical round tomatoes, cherry tomatoes for salads, along with grape tomatoes for much the same purpose. Then there are plum tomatoes. Such tomatoes have a higher solids content, and make good pastes and sauces. There are tomatoes of various colors and textures. Some are very juicy and refreshing. Some are good for slicing, coating with cracker crumbs, frying, and eating with a cream gravy over bread (oh my!). Cream of tomato soup is a real treat, too. Serve it with a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich, and you won’t even need dessert.
Tomatoes, with only slight soil amendments and seasonal weather, are easy to grow, and very rewarding. Some plants have been raised sideways, being raised in compost or earthworm castings. And the best part is that the tomatoes you grow will not have thick skins, woody texture, and no taste. You will pick them at just the right time, and you will prepare them in just the right way!