Thursday, August 9, 2012

Your Daughter is So Tomato

     When I took my first bite of this summer's tomato crop I remembered myself as a young boy, watching my father devour a homegrown Beefstake. Although at that age I was not yet vegetarian, I was disappointed that a thing as lovely as a tomato would be named after a chunk of dead cow. Was this a trick, I wondered, to encourage Americans to eat more tomatoes? 

Tomato 'Big Beefstake'.

    But who doesn't like tomatoes? OK, children, although they are only refusing to eat tomatoes on the grounds that it's a vegetable. They are wrong. It's a fruit because it arises from successfully pollinated flowers. Feel free to try this argument on your kids: "Tomatoes are virtually the same as bananas, so get over it, Cody."
     Nature also makes edible roots and tubers; plant parts we today call "vegetables"--carrots, beets, potatoes, yams, turnips, etc. Five centuries ago, the word "vegetable" was used as an adjective. A thing that was "strong and lively" was described as being vegetable. For example you might have said, "How proud you must be of your vegetable daughter; she won the marathon!"
    Eventually the word "vegetable" morphed into a noun, giving way to its modern usage: "A plant cultivated for food, edible herb, or root." 
     It wasn't until the Twentieth Century that the word took on additional meaning; in other words, "I'm sorry to inform you that your daughter was struck in the head by a flying kettle bell, but sadly she will be a vegetable for the rest of her life."  
     (Perhaps if she had eaten more tomatoes, she would have had the strength to dodge that kettle bell?)

Roma Tomato 'Pompeii'.

     Tomatoes are one of nature's food miracles, which means that science must ruin it. I recently read that a researcher has determined why commercially grown tomatoes (the awful ones sold in grocery stores) have no flavor, because the "flavor gene" is missing. But not to worry, Mr. Scientist has promised to fix the problem by breeding the flavor gene back into these crummy tomatoes. That is, as long as he can find the exact, missing gene, because--oops--it may be extinct!
     Meanwhile, I suggest eating home grown tomatoes, the ones with the flavor genes already in them. Tomato plants are fairly easy to cultivate but they can pick up a lot of crud: Septoria Leaf Spot, Early Blight, Anthracnose, Verticillium Wilt, and Late Blight. I guarantee, if you've grown tomatoes in your garden, you've seen at least half of these, and as for the one's you haven't seen, you will, sooner or later.
     Several seasons ago, after the U.S. was hit with a massive outbreak of Late Blight (a disease that liquefies whole tomato plants into a foul goo within days), I began adding a fungicide spray to my IPM strategies. I apply it three to five times between June and July to prevent disease spores from reproducing and infecting the plants. Once disease becomes systemic, it's too late for sprays. The best you can hope for is to slow the pathogen's progression by employing a combination of aggressive pruning and fungicide application, but most often it's too late--the tomato plants quickly wither and die. 

Keep tomato vines upright and allow them plenty of room to spread.
     As beloved as tomatoes are today, the juicy critters have a dark history--they were once believed to be poisonous and cause evil. The Germans named them the "wolf peach" due to their alleged lycanthropic properties. (Hey, why is it we never see the Wolfman eating a plate of tomatoes in the movies?)
     Historically, old fashioned tomato paranoia arises from the fact tomatoes belong in the Nightshade family, including the notorious Atropa Belladonna, from which the highly useful alkaloid drug, Atropine, is extracted. Small amounts of Atropine in the eyes will dilate the pupils (yes, these are the drops you get at the opthalmologist's office); a little Atropine beneath the tongue will stop excessive drooling (sometimes a symptom of Parkinson's disease); in the bloodstream it will enter the brain and induce hallucinations (no comment); and finally, a large enough dose will interrupt the parasympathetic nervous system and stop the heart cold (useful for murder mystery authors and melodramatic Romans.)
     Luckily, tomatoes are not poisonous, unless you make a deadly stir fry of their leaves and stems. So please grow tomatoes at home and eat their fruit by the bucketful. And be sure to make tomatoes the center of the meal, surrounding it with sides of fresh basil and some olive oil, a fat slice of whole grain bread, and a mellow glass of South American Malbec. 

A reminder from my mom.
    As for kids, I don't have any (more tomatoes for me, thank you) but if I had fathered kids who refused to eat tomatoes, I wouldn't yell at them or force them to sit at the table until they tried a bite, launching a cold war that could last for days. My mom never pulled any of that crap on me, thank goodness, and how could I not be impressed by the smile on my dad's face while he made a meal of that voluptuous Beefstake? 
    But it's good to be prepared, so I case I ever find myself dining with obstinate kids who are bemoaning the "total grossness" of tomatoes, I'll sneak out of the room and return with thick wads of dog fur glued to my face.  

Beware the full tomato.

Shane VanOosterhout is The Passionate Gardener.  
For more garden inspiration, you can follow him on Facebook

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