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A tomato is not a tomato; hoe rooier, hoe mooier

Following some of the commentaries to my post on patriotism, I feel the need to defend the tomato — especially the red tomato. Now you may wonder what on earth I am on about. Don’t I have enough work on my hands having to design two syllabi? A tomato is a tomato is a tomato, for goodness sake! Well, no. A tomato is not just a tomato. In fact, the tomato has a fascinating and colourful history and, well, some of us love them big, firm, not bitter or bruised, preferably Mediterranean and, of course, red …

The tomato is celebrated by societies around the world. Since its earliest origins in South America, through its passage to Europe in the 16th century, the tomato has gone from being classified as poisonous to being celebrated as the apple of gold (pomo d’oro) by Italians, the “love apple” (pomme d’amour) in French and libesapfel in German). People around the world generally take the tomato very seriously.

Tomatoes arranged along the colours of the German flag

Most people are probably familiar with the annual tomato festival in Bunyol, Spain. Parenthetically, the prude/conservative/self-righteous/angry part of me sees no value in playing with food when there are millions of people starving in the world. Hence the destruction of millions of pumpkins for amusement during Halloween in the United States sits uncomfortably — especially since pumpkin is part of so many people’s staple food in Africa. Anyway, I have attended tomato festivals in places as far apart as Pepeekeo, Hawaii and Geneva, Switzerland; the tomato is among the most celebrated vegetables.

After reading the post on patriotism in which I referred to a tomato that is actually red, a friend, Simon, drew my attention to the following passage from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, on the tomato.

“For centuries tomatoes were feared as being chill to the stomach, as possible cause of gout and cancer, or excessive sexual appetite, in every way unsuitable for the stomach … The word ‘tomato’ now embraces the best and the worst of the vegetable kingdom. It means the huge red tomatoes of the Mediterranean, that burst with sun and flavour into great curves that are firm to the centre as you cut into them. It also means the pale, underprivileged rotundity of the northern shops [in England], the dreaded Moneymaker [a type of tomato] and similar varieties, whose only virtues are regular size and vast yield. You will find a number of growers who have a couple of rows of … well-flavoured variety for their own consumption, while their main crop is Moneymaker.

“The sad thing is that we need not suffer in this way at all. Countries with superb climates, Spain, the Canary Islands, Israel, are growing specially tasteless tomatoes for the London market. They would not dream of foisting them on their own people, and their other clients in Germany and France.”

Grigson is not the only person who thinks most people in Britain are patsies for tastelessness. I happen to think that it is a mistake to single out the British. I’ve had some bland tomatoes on the Cape Flats. Anyway, a few years ago, Digby Anderson wrote in the New Statesman that the British have a deeply flawed taste for tomatoes; they prefer tomatoes from The Netherlands.

“You cannot even fry the tomatoes for breakfast; they steam. Latin tomatoes consist largely of tomato flesh. Dutch tomatoes are largely water, pips, pith and skin … My greengrocer says customers demand Dutch tomatoes because they like them; they look nice. I have indeed heard customers in the shop say: ‘Ooo, they look nice.’ It is not because it’s impossible to get hold of Latin tomatoes … It is because the English have not, as so often alleged, rediscovered food. They are still ignorant, lazy and besotted with appearance.

“Let us be straight about what this really means. Unless I, and the few of you who bother with food, drive 24 miles, I cannot prepare stuffed tomatoes, sardines and tomatoes, or even have fried tomatoes with my breakfast, because of the depraved tastes of my fellow countrymen. The environmental and health fascists rant about the wicked food industry and the supermarkets. But these are not the real problem. They merely provide what the depraved want.”

Well then … and you thought a tomato was a tomato. Hey, I have nothing against the purple, yellow, white, orange or black tomato. By one account there are at least 30 varieties of tomatoes. I just happen to believe that hoe rooier, hoe mooier.


  • I am a political economist. In earlier incarnations, I worked as a journalist and photojournalist, as a professor of political economy and an international and national public servant. I rarely get time to write for this space as often as I would like to.... I don't read the comments section


  1. Jon Jon 7 August 2008

    Anyone can design a syllabus; not everyone can grow the perfect tomato.

  2. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 7 August 2008

    Now I understand why you don’t care much for Seffrikan soccer teams or patriotism. You want the best tomatoes, whether they are home grown or whether you have to drive 24 miles to get them. Must say I agree.

  3. The Bobster The Bobster 7 August 2008

    Ja Ismal. Stem saam. My favourite fruit or is it a veg? Nevertheless, love them.
    Supposed to be a cure all from piles to pyorrhea. Prevent prostrate problems and a host of the ills and consequences of modern day living, excepting perhaps gout prone people. Tough.
    A salad is not a salad without that lovely red colour mixing in with the green lettuce leaves, white cucumber rings and spring onions.

    Viva la tomato!

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 7 August 2008


    Cherry tomatoes are also red, AND sweet, AND don’t attract as many insects,AND don’t have to be staked, AND are not as watery, AND can be grown on a windowsill. NOTHING tstes the same as a tomato still picked warm from the sun.

    But if you are windowsill gardening the other must haves are Rosemary,Lavender, Basil and Sage. Preferably the perennial Basil.

    My daughter also managed just one large red tomato on her windowsill in London – and her partner served it to a client for a meal. She nearly had a fit! Plus the handyman threw out all her herbs – thought they were weeds! Londoners don’t seem to know herbs?

  5. Jon Jon 8 August 2008

    Tomatoes you buy in the supermarket are all grown hydroponically in huge hothouses. Their sad little roots slosh around in a botanist’s “nutrient solution” and never get to anchor themselves in the wonderful greatness of proper, friable garden soil. No wonder they’re so insipid.

  6. Gerry Gerry 8 August 2008

    We have a few Italian restaurants around our place in Jozi, and our fair share of Chinese places. American-style steak houses are abundant, and if you have the budget, a French restaurant or two are available to us. A shop not too far from us serves the most wonderful Mediterranean food, and there is even a Greek place with wonderful moussaka and baklava. My fave though is a Lebanese place selling awesome things I can’t pronounce, nevermind know what goes into them, but taste like heaven. And of course the Irish Pub selling the Irish stales.

    But I don’t think I’ve EVER seen a British restaurant, ever. British food is as bland as their tabloids and, to coin a phrase, as boring as toast. Come to think of it, if my culture boiled all their food, including bread, I may have to become a soccer hoolligan as well to pep up my life!

  7. The Bobster The Bobster 8 August 2008

    I squeeze out all the overripe tomatoes into the garden. Have some devastating crops especially the cherry tomatoes that grow like weeds. A continual harvest for the salad bowl during season.
    Viva la tomato!

  8. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 8 August 2008

    The Bobster

    Tell them! In a totally dead area behind the service area of my grandparent’s home a cherry tomato plant self seeded each year. They do grow like weeds!

    And most of the best nutritional and medicinal herbs are weeds. There is even a book on gardening with weeds!

  9. Bhambi Bhambi 13 August 2008

    re:[email protected]

    “It takes intelligence to figure out that tomato is a fruit, but it takes wisdom to realize that you can not include it in a fruit cocktail”…

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