Eli Jameson celebrates summer and separates the ripe tomatoes from the hoary chestnuts
Hear the word ‘tomatoes’, and what do you think of? Spaghetti piled high and swimming in marinara sauce? Garden vines hanging heavy with ripe, red fruit? Or perhaps something less pleasant – childhood memories of supermarket tomatoes as tasteless as their plastic packaging, sliced into a salad of sweaty iceberg lettuce and gloppy dressing the colour of jaundice?
To me, tomatoes always mean one thing: summer. Regular readers of this column are familiar with my fierce dislike of the colder months, and so the arrival of abundant and cheap tomatoes in the markets is always a cause for celebration. For the foreseeable future, there will always be a truss of tomatoes, still on the vine, on the kitchen bench ready to go on sandwiches, be tossed into some dish or other, or simply sliced on a plate and sprinkled with sea salt and a little extra-virgin olive oil – the ultimate simple summer salad – perhaps with basil and a torn-up ball of buffalo mozzarella.
But what’s the story with tomatoes? Are they fruits or vegetables? Were they really once thought to be poisonous, until someone ate a bucket of them on the steps of a small-town U.S. courthouse? There are a lot of strange stories that have grown up around tomatoes, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve fallen for some of them (the courthouse steps one, especially) myself over the years.
Tomatoes, according to the invaluable Wikipedia, are a fruit, at least scientifically speaking: they are the ovary, together with the seeds, of a flowering plant. However, because tomatoes are generally served as a main dish and not as desert, they are legally classified – at least in the United States – as a vegetable. The issue even went so far as the US Supreme Court, which in the 1893 case of Nix v. Hedden declared tomatoes as vegetables because of their popular use (along with cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas), a decision which had huge tariff implications at the time. For a good time, invite a botanist and a lawyer along to your local’s next trivia night, and make sure the emcee asks the fruit-or-vegetable question.
And then there is the tale of the brave Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, who is said to have eaten of a basket of tomatoes on the steps of the Salem, New Jersey, courthouse in 1820 to turn the tide of public opinion and show that the fruit was not the least bit dangerous to anyone who didn’t suffer severe hearburn. Alas, the much-loved Johnson tale is not true: the American television network CBS popularized the story in a 1949 episode of You Are There, in which an actor playing the colonel declared to an assembled throng of two thousand, “What are you afraid of? Being poisoned? Well I’m not, and I’ll show you fools that these things are good to eat!”
As it turns out, tomatoes were grown and eaten in North America since at least 1710; not only were they not thought of as poisonous, but Puritans of the time even eschewed the things, fearing their alleged aphrodisiac properties! That great gourmand and man of the world Thomas Jefferson himself purchased the fruit (not yet classified a veggie by the courts) to serve at state dinners in 1806, and from 1809 onwards planted them at his estate, Monticello. Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph, author of the extremely influential 19th century cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, contained some 17 tomato recipes for such exotic dishes including gazpacho and gumbo.
Today, tomatoes are not only not considered dangerous, but downright healthful, especially as they are rich in the cancer-preventing antioxidant lycopene. Bloody Mary, anyone?
Chilled Tomato Soup
This is one of my favourite mid-summer soups, adapted from Charlie Palmer’s excellent cookbook, Great American Food. He suggests serving with toasted croutons with warm goat cheese and basil; I think that can get in the way of the clean tomatoey goodness of the soup. But try it – you may like it. In any case, this is a great dinner party starter course for the height of summer.
About 8 large, ripe vine-ripened or truss
Some good extra-virgin olive oil;
1 finely chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Fresh basil leaves
500 ml sparkling mineral water
2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
Good sea salt, like Maldon
1. Peel, seed and chop the tomatoes; set aside. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large, heavy pan and sauté the onion, celery, garlic, and about 8 basil leaves – which should be torn in half as you toss them in. Lower the heat and continue to cook gently for about four minutes (you want the vegetables to soften but not pick up any colour), and add the tomatoes, sparkling water and sachet. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Take off heat and let rest for 30 minutes, then remove and discard the sachet.
2. Puree the mixture in a blender, working in batches if necessary, until the soup is quite smooth. Pour through a fine sieve and strain into a non-reactive bowl – giving the solids a push if need be to extract liquid. Add a couple of teaspoons of Lea & Perrins (just enough to bring out the tomato flavour; not enough to make it obvious) and your salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until icy cold – at least four hours.
3. Serve in chilled, flat soup bowls, with a spring of basil for garnish.