What We Eat: The Story of the Tomato - #105

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

 BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the America’s for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When the first Spanish explorers arrived in Mexico it was being ruled by the Aztecs. The Aztecs had controlled Mexico and Central America since 1325. The Aztecs loved conquering their neighbors; it was a great way to spend the day— out in the fresh air, lots of good exercise, tons of looted treasure. But if they couldn’t conquer you they had a great fall back position. Let’s do a little business. Want to trade something.

BURT WOLF: Between conquering and trading the Aztecs came in contact with many different cultures and were exposed to dozens of new foods. The Mayans introduced the Aztecs to the tomato, which they immediately accepted because it reminded them of something they were already eating — the husk tomato. They juiced them, added some chili peppers, ground up a little pumpkin seed, and had what we call salsa.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Spanish were pretty good at conquering too and eventually conquered the Aztecs. The first Spaniards to see a tomato were with Cortez when he invaded Mexico in 1519. They called it a tomate.

BURT WOLF: The earliest published description of a tomato in Europe appeared in Italy in 1544. It was called a pomidoro, which means golden apple and suggests that the first tomatoes in Italy were yellow. Yellow tomatoes were associated with the yellow fruit of the mandrake plant, which was described in the Bible as an aphrodisiac. In many European countries the tomato became known as a “love apple”.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The English first encountered the tomato in Jamaica and corrupted the Spanish word for it into tomahto. But Noah Webster, who compiled Webster’s Dictionary, thought the word should rhyme with potato; so Americans call them tomatoes while the English still call them tomahtoes.


BURT WOLF: Tomatoes did well throughout southern Europe—Spain, Southern France and Italy slowly incorporated them into their diets.

PAUL ROZIN ON CAMERA: It took a while to be adopted.  You know, they're sort of bright and sort of frightening looking. It is hard to believe that Mediterranean cuisine didn't have tomatoes before 1600, but they didn't.  It's like the essence of Mediterranean cuisine. They already had a pasta, they already had a. well, of course the green pepper or the red pepper that goes with the tomato in the sauce was also coming over from the new world, so the basic sauce that is used in the Mediterranean, except for the olive oil, is actually stuff that is new. And it is in many ways like a meat substitute.  It adds both the color and some of the taste and texture of meat to foods.  So it is widely popular, particularly in cuisines, like in the Mediterranean which is not, which are not high meat cuisines.

BURT  WOLF: The tomato was around but no big deal. That changed however during the 1700s when famine swept through Italy. Suddenly they were hot stuff.

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: When famines occurred, they needed foods quickly and the tomato has the interesting characteristic that you put it in the ground, and three months later you have a plant bearing fruit. And so therefore, the southern Italians very quickly found out that one, they liked the tomato, and in addition to that, it was a famine food and in addition to that it could be used in so many different ways.

BURT WOLF: But tomatoes weren’t popular in northern Europe. The English had a particular dislike for them. They were different from the other fruits and vegetables that grew in Great Britain. And they didn’t match up with the diet recommended by most physicians.

For centuries doctors had practiced Humoral Medicine. All foods were divided into two groups—hot and cold. Doctors used these foods to balance the humors of the body. If you were having a hot time, doctors prescribed cool foods to bring you into line. If you were too cool, then hot foods were given to warm you up. In general, the more water a food held the cooler it was. Tomatoes were very cool.

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: And for the humoral system of medicine, what you do not want to do is eat a cold food in a cold country.  And they identified England and northern Europe as cold countries, and so therefore you wouldn't want to eat them.  But it was perfectly all right for an English man to go to Italy or to Spain and eat a tomato, because then they were in a hot country, and so therefore the balance between the hot country and the cold product was one that was good.

BURT WOLF: The English often took their holidays along the Mediterranean coast where tomatoes were part of the everyday menu.  When they returned home they brought back a taste for the tomato. And by the mid 1700s, the tomato, as an edible plant, was being cultivated in England. Within a few decades most other Northern European countries added the tomato to their ingredient list.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Back in America, the acceptance of the tomato was pretty much divided along the Mason- Dixon line. In the South, it was a regular part of the daily diet. In New England, however, it was not very important. They didn't grow well, took a long time to mature, and didn’t remind the New Englanders of anything they were already eating.  Who needed it!

DEB FRIEDMAN ON CAMERA: Most people would find them something that were difficult to grow, and don't know how to use them readily. One of my favorite stories is of a girl named Susan Blunt, whose father brought tomato seeds home, grew the tomatoes, her mother used the tomatoes to make a pie.  The family didn't like it.  They fed the pie to the pig.  The pig didn't like it.  So, they decided not to grow tomatoes any more.  For the most part, you find that,  people knew what they were, but they weren't willing to put the time and effort into them, to grow them, because they don't last long.  They have to be processed into something.  Whereas a carrot buried in a bin of sand will last for several months, a tomato has to be made into a preserve, into a catsup, into a pie, pretty soon.  And so, it demands a lot of attention very quickly

BURT WOLF: But the tomato’s hard time came to an end in 1834 when Dr. John Cook Bennett declared that the tomato would cure just about everything from dyspepsia to cholera. His claims were published in newspapers and magazines throughout the country. Bennet took a bunch of theories that had been circulating in the medical community and created a popular craze.

At one point Dr. Bennett met Dr. Alexander Miles who was busy selling a patent medicine called the “American Hygiene Pill”. Bennett suggested to Miles that he change the name of his pill to “Extract of Tomato.” 

Miles began advertising his extract of tomato and virtually every newspaper in the country began publishing articles about miraculous tomato cures. They used the slogan “Tomato Pills Will Cure All Your Ills.”

A media wave surged through every region of the nation and all Americans--lower, middle and upper class--were infected with tomato mania. Even those who did not believe in tomato miracles believed that the tomato was a wholesome and delicious food.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1840, the medical Community decided to investigate the tomato pills and find out what was really inside them.  After an exhaustive period of research they concluded that in fact there were no tomatoes in the tomato pill or in the liquid medicine. But that wasn’t important. What was important was that Americans were eating more and more tomatoes.


BURT WOLF: Tomatoes became even more important in North American cuisine when thousands of southern Italians immigrated to the U.S. after the Civil War. They planted tomatoes in their gardens, ate them raw, cooked them, and introduced them to their non-Italian neighbors. Many Italian immigrants worked in grocery stores and restaurants and continued to spread the tomato. But it had to be in a form that was acceptable to mainstream America—Italian-American cuisine was born.

By 1900 the first pizza parlors opened in New York City and the tomato hit the top of the charts. And the grocer’s shelves

PAUL ROZIN ON CAMERA: Pizza is the, probably the most popular food in the United States.  It's not an American food.  It’d be hard to know that.  Any anthropologist who came and studied the globe would assume that pizza was the great native American food, and after all it's even made with tomatoes which are from our half of the world.

BURT WOLF: The tomato had become the “Queen of American Vegetables,” which was very bizarre because the tomato is a fruit not a vegetable. The definition is very straightforward. If the part we eat does not have a seed used for reproduction, it’s a vegetable — carrots, celery, lettuce, beets— no seeds. If the part that we eat has a seed used for reproduction, it’s a fruit — apples, pears, grapes, watermelon, all come with seeds. We eat the tomato and its seed; therefore, hence, ergo and accordingly, the tomato is a fruit.

Tomatoes are still the “Queen of America’s Vegetables” and although they won’t cure all your ills, they can help. They are full of vitamins A and C and contain an antioxident called lycopene. Lycopene is what gives tomatoes their vibrant red color and is found almost exclusively in tomatoes. Since 1995, research has shown a correlation between the intake of tomatoes and tomato-based foods and the diminished risk of certain forms of cancer, as well as heart disease.

California and Florida are the top two tomato producing states in the U.S. Each year, Florida dedicates approximately 42,000 acres of prime land to growing them.

In California there are nearly 200 farming families growing tomatoes.

About 3.7 billion pounds of tomatoes are produced in the United States each year.

Florida and California tomatoes grow up in a warm and sunny climate, and they like that kind of environment.  So, don't put them in your refrigerator.  Once a tomato is brought below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, it permanently loses the enzymes that create the flavor. The water inside begins to expand.  The cell walls burst, and the texture becomes mealy.  And store them stem side up.  That's the way they grew.  And like many of us, they don't enjoy standing on their heads.


BURT WOLF: Before the Civil War most commercially grown tomatoes were raised in Florida and transported to northern cities. During the war that supply was cut off so farmers in the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean started planting tomatoes and exporting them to the States. After the war, the Caribbean tomato trade expanded and began to threaten the profits of many U.S. growers. To protect American growers against this competition, Congress passed the Tariff Act of 1883. It levied a ten percent duty on imported vegetables.

In the spring of 1886 John Nix imported a shipment of tomatoes from the Caribbean to New York City, maintaining that they were a fruit rather than a vegetable. Nix paid the duty, under protest, and then brought suit to get his money back.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: After six years of winding its way through the court system, Nix v. Hedden ended up being argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. And with its supreme knowledge, it decided that even though the tomato was botanically a fruit, it disguised itself as a vegetable as it moved through commerce and, being a tender vegetable, it needed to be protected. A ten percent duty was its protection. And so the Supreme Court of the United States turned a fruit into a vegetable. And isn’t that what justice is all about.


BURT WOLF: The word ketchup comes with an image of a thick, sweet, tomato-based condiment, which is poured, spooned and squirted on many of our foods. While it’s standard op for restaurants in the United States to have bottles of tomato ketchup, Americans neither created ketchup, nor, in its origin, was it a thick, sweet or tomato-based food. 

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: The word  ketchup is originally Chinese.  And it's cats-y-ap is the original word.  And it originally meant, fermented fish sauce, or fermented soy sauce...a very thin liquid-y sauce that was used mainly in cooking.  It was not used as a condiment.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: An ingredient.

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: It was used as an ingredient in the cooking and migrated from China into Southeast Asia, and into what's today Indonesia.  And the Indonesians fell in love with this product, and which is now called ca-chop. And is available in all sorts of different variations in Indonesia today.

BURT WOLF: British explorers, traders and colonists moving through Asia came into contact with cachop. And when they got home they attempted to recreate the recipe, which became ketchup.  Soybeans did not grow easily in Europe, so British cooks substituted other products, like anchovies, mushrooms, kidney beans, and later in the eighteenth century, walnuts. British colonists then brought their ketchup recipes to America.

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: And it's really not until about 1800 that Americans start fooling around with other products, just like the British did, and created a whole series of other ketchups ... all the fruit ketchups, apple ketchup, cherry ketchup, peach ketchup, and somebody went around and, and found that tomatoes made good ketchup, too.  And up until about the Civil War, the three main ketchups, which were all gourmet foods--- you would have walnut ketchup, mushroom ketchup, and tomato ketchup.  And at the bottom of menus from this period, they proudly announced that they had all three of these ketchups would be available if you went into the best restaurants of America at that time.

BURT WOLF: After the Civil War, the price of tomatoes dropped dramatically. What was originally three and a half dollars a pint for tomato ketchup became ten cents for a quart. The price of mushrooms and walnuts however remained the same. By 1896, The New York Tribune declared “Tomato Ketchup: America’s National Condiment.”


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Emily Aronson has been my producer for almost 30 years.  And we get along pretty well.  But we differ on ketchup.  First of all, we do agree that it's the best sauce in the world.  But she feels it has to be stored outside the refrigerator, where somewhere I came upon the idea that it should be stored in the refrigerator. 

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: Emily is a very wise woman.  You can just determine that not only by her love of ketchup, but in addition to that, ketchup does not need to be refrigerated.  And in fact, I think cold ketchup is not as tasty as, as ketchup that comes in right at room temperature.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At the end of the 1800s ketchup was only one of the foods being mass-produced. The War Between the States had created an enormous demand for foods that would stay fresh and travel. The American canning industry came of age and one of their most successful products was canned soup.

BURT WOLF: Tomato soup would have been just one soup among many had it not been for John T. Dorrance. In 1895, he began producing condensed soups. He sold five flavors in his first year: tomato, vegetable, chicken, consommé and oxtail. By 1904 however his company was making 21 different flavors and selling 16 million cans a year. The business of canned soups flourished and tomato soup was by far the most important.

When the Depression hit in the early 1930’s, soup became the main meal. At twelve cents per can, canned soups were healthy and inexpensive. Even if you bought fresh tomatoes and made your own soup you couldn’t do it as cheaply. During the 1930’s tomato soup became the most consumed canned food item in America.


BURT WOLF: During the summer of 1917, Louis Perrin, was the French-American chef at a resort in French Lick Springs, Indiana. One day he started serving his guests tomato juice.

It was just an experiment but Chicago businessmen loved it and spread the word: Tomato juice was great stuff.

By the 1920s, tomato juice was being promoted as a health drink. Canned tomato drinks were getting more popular, but none of the products yielded the juice with just the right color and flavor. And the tomato solids settled to the bottom of the can, or glass—not what the public wanted.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1924, Ralph Kemp of Frankfort, Indiana started looking for a way to break up tomato pulp into tiny little particles that would float in tomato juice but not an easy thing to do.  It took him four hears of experimentation.  Finally ended up using something called a viscolizer which had previously been used in the making of ice cream.  Then in 1928 he introduced the first true tomato juice with a national ad campaign and it became an instant success.

BURT WOLF: One reason tomato juice was so successful was that it arrived as prohibition left. A cocktail made of tomato juice and vodka was probably introduced by Ferdinand “Pete” Petiot at Harry’s Bar in Paris. During the 1930’s, Pete moved to New York and introduced his new creation to America.  Eventually, he added Worcestershire Sauce and called it a Bloody Mary.

Ernest Hemingway claims that he personally introduced the Bloody Mary to the bars of Hong Kong. He spent his evenings going from bar to bar teaching the bartenders how to properly prepare and serve the Bloody Mary. Hemingway was a founding member of the Inebriationists, a non-profit society devoted to the cross-cultural exchange of recipes based on distilled spirits.

BURT WOLF: During the late 1940s, tomato throwing became an organized event in Bunyol, a town 25 miles west of Valencia, Spain. The Tomatina festival, held on the last Wednesday in August, has been officially sponsored by the city since 1979. More than 30,000 people pelt each other and the city with tomatoes.

Throwing tomatoes is a good old American tradition that dates back to the middle of the 1800s. It started in rural areas at the end of the season when the price of the tomato had dropped so low that they weren’t worth picking. People just tossed them at each other for sport.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Eventually it moved into urban theaters where it became the critical counterpart to throwing flowers. In recent years, target acquisition has expanded to include politicians, famous figures and cameramen.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For What We Eat I’m Burt Wolf.