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Tomatoes in Court

July 7, 2019

 

Bayou-Diversity (7 July 2019)   For many southern palates ambrosia can be defined as a home-grown, vine-ripened, freshly sliced tomato.  In their long journey to domestication tomatoes have made a number of interesting stops around the world, none less so than the U.S. Supreme Court.  This particular side trip began in 1883 when congress imposed a 10 percent tax on all imported vegetables.  One disgruntled and botanically astute importer challenged the law on the grounds that tomatoes were technically fruits and not vegetables.  He was correct according to accepted biological definitions.  The justices though unanimously leaned in the direction of the common man’s vernacular, rejected the botanical truth, and the misconception was perpetuated along with the taxes.

 

The wild kinfolks of tomatoes grow in Central America and along the western coast of South America.  From Peru an ancestor of the tomato may have migrated to Mexico where it was first domesticated.  Aztec recipes using peppers, salt, and tomatoes may have been the original salsa.  These first tomatoes were small, cherry-like, and grew on a creeping vine. 

 

Very soon after Cortez’s infamous triumphs in Mexico in 1521 tomatoes turned up in Europe.  Cultivation quickly became widespread after overcoming a few superstitious speed bumps.  Often associated with other poisonous and hallucinogenic members in its nightshade family, tomatoes got a bad rap early on.  In German folklore they were tied to werewolves, and the Latin scientific name for tomatoes translates to “edible wolf peach.”  Tomatoes sailed back to North America with the colonists, but maintaining a shady reputation were largely considered as ornamentals.  Suspicions of the tomatoes' safety were not put to rest until the 19th century.  It is a good thing.  Who would we in Louisiana be without shrimp creole and BLTs?  (Adapted from Bayou Diversity 2: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press, 2018)

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