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A great year for tomatoes

11/04/02 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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(Host) Commentator Vern Grubinger reflects on tomatoes - in the garden, in history, and in the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Grubinger) What a year it was for tomatoes. I should know, I grow about a dozen different kinds to hedge my bets. This season, they all paid off. The greenhouse types did well, of course, since they were protected from the elements. But in the field, where the weather usually wreaks havoc, a dry summer kept diseases at bay, and the frost was so late in coming that harvest continued until the middle of October, about a month longer than usual.

That meant there were plenty of ugly but delicious Brandywines, an heirloom variety. The Sun Gold cherry tomatoes produced a lot of tasty yellow fruit, but they tended to split with the irregular rainfall. My favorite this year was Matt's Wild Cherry, a very sweet and very small fruited variety that grows wild in Mexico, where the tomato was domesticated.

Like its relative the potato, the tomato originated in South America. Thousands of years ago, the people there began to cultivate a vining plant with little sour red berries. Over the centuries the ancestral tomato was carried from the Inca civilization in Peru to the Maya of Central America and then to the Toltecs in Mexico. Their Aztec conquerors called the plant "tomatl", and their conquerors, the Spaniards, called it "tomate". The conquistadors brought the tomato to Europe in the 1600's where it was embraced by Spaniards and Italians. Northern Europeans suspected it was poisonous and only grew it for decoration, although some felt it was an aphrodisiac and began calling it the "love apple". The tomato arrived in America in the late 1700's along with all of the myths surrounding it. Because it resembled the other nightshades, one can see why many people continued to think that it was poisonous. Adventuresome gardeners, like Thomas Jefferson, helped it gain in popularity. By 1835, tomatoes were widely eaten.

Today, the tomato is our second most popular vegetable, after potato. Americans consume an average of 88 pounds per person each year. Processed products like tomato sauce, salsa and ketchup account for 80% of our tomato consumption.

Surprisingly, recent research shows that heating tomatoes for commercial processing actually increases their antioxidant activity. Antioxidants are chemicals that protect aging bodies from stresses that can cause disease. Many fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants. Blueberries, red grapes and cranberries have the highest antioxidant activity among fruit, and tomatoes are surpassed only by garlic and broccoli among the vegetables.

Of course, in botanical terms, the tomato is actually a fruit because it contains seeds. But in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, and it's never looked back. That ruling protected U.S. tomato growers from foreign markets, since at the time there was an import tax on vegetables but not fruits.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
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