The modern, migrant tomato – from a dysfunctional family
Tomatoes are among those tormented vegetables (or fruits?) of the garden patch. Like many family lines, the tomato comes from a distinguished, albeit, dysfunctional one. Originating in the lower Andes (part of present-day Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia), the tomato was held in little esteem. Small and perishable, it was not a food easily cultivated for storage like potatoes, beans, squash, and maize. By the time Christopher Columbus arrived upon the shores of America, the tomato had made its way to Mexico, but stopped short of crossing the border into southwest North America.
To its credit, the tomato had the distinction of being among the 15 most valuable crops – such as sweet potato, pumpkin, avocado, and cocoa – to depart the New World for the Old, according to Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov. This unprecedented swapping of plants and animals was dubbed the ‘Columbian Exchange’ by historian Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., who went on to say that these foods “made the most valuable single addition to the food-producing plants of the Old World since the beginnings of agriculture.” The Italians embraced tomatoes with gusto despite the warnings of naturalist Pierandrea Mattioli, referring to it as an “unhealthy apple.” Still, can you imagine Italian cuisine today without tomatoes?
The tomato infiltrated Spain, France, Poland, and beyond, yet North Americans were skeptical of this member of the deadly nightshade family. They were a further menace to Puritan society when rumors circulated that the tomato was an aphrodisiac! How noble was the first man who took a stand on its behalf. According to James Trager, it was Colonel Robert Gibbon in 1840 who stood on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey to eat a raw tomato. Death was surely imminent, yet he lived! It was not until after World War I that the tomato gained status as a worthy component of the dinner table.
Seemingly prone to controversy and discord, there was also the business of classifying the tomato. According to Waverley Root, in 1893 the Supreme Court “ruled that because it was used like a vegetable it must be considered one for the purposes of trade.” So legally, tomatoes are vegetables, while botanically they are fruits.
One might compare this mixed-up botanical debacle with the present-day, hot-button issue of a “Columbian Exchange” of peoples from many countries and across many borders. Genealogical and ancestral lineage aside, we love our homegrown tomatoes, just as we love our extended families in Christ. We must pray to the Lord as we discern the immigration debate. May we each have the courage of Colonel Gibbon, who ate the “forbidden fruit,” to amicably resolve the immigration issue while loving all neighbors as ourselves.
CHEF JOHN D. FOLSE is an entrepreneur with interests ranging from restaurant development to food manufacturing, catering to culinary education. A cradle-Catholic, he supports many Catholic organizations including the Sister Dulce Ministry at Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, LA. This month’s featured recipe is from his recent cookbook, Can You Dig It: Louisiana’s Authoritative Collection of Vegetable Cookery.
MICHAELA YORK is vice president of communications for John Folse & Company.
Creole Tomato-Basil Pie • yield: 6-8 servings • prep time: 2 hours
4–5 medium Creole tomatoes
½ cup torn basil leaves, divided
1 (9-inch) pre-baked pie shell
1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese, divided
½ cup olive oil, divided
½ cup julienned andouille sausage, divided
1 cup crawfish tails, divided
½ cup grated Cheddar cheese, divided
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1 small Bermuda onion, peeled, sliced and divided
1 cup seasoned Italian bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350°F. Core tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch slices. Drain approx. 1 hour on paper towels to remove excess liquid. Set tomatoes aside. In bottom of pie shell, layer ¼ cup Monterey Jack cheese; then top with sliced tomatoes. Brush tomatoes with olive oil, then sprinkle with basil, andouille, crawfish tails, Cheddar and Parmesan along with ¼ cup Monterey Jack. Season to taste with salt and pepper then add 2–3 slices Bermuda onion. Continue with tomato slices and repeat layers 2–3 times or until pie is filled. Sprinkle top generously with bread crumbs along with any remaining cheeses and basil. Bake 1–1½ hours or until cheese is melted and bread crumbs are well browned. Remove from oven. Allow pie to cool slightly before serving. If desired, place finished pie in refrigerator and serve cold or freeze for later use.