I Lagardien
I Lagardien

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.