The Tomato: History, Cultivation, Appreciation

Part I:

The tomato (domates), while often associated with Italy and its cuisine, actually originated in the Andean region of South America. The exact date and location of the tomato’s domestication is unclear, but scientists believe it was probably first domesticated in what is now Peru and later brought to Mexico.[1] Spread of the tomato beyond Central and South America began in the 1500s with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, who learned about the plant during their colonization of the continent. They introduced tomatoes to their various colonies in the Caribbean and brought them back home to Spain and to the rest of Europe, where they grew particularly well in southern Mediterranean climates like Italy, Greece, and Turkey. However, because the conquistadores could only bring home a limited number of seeds and plants, they created what geneticists call a “bottleneck or serious reduction in population” that resulted in lower genetic diversity, meaning the domesticated tomatoes growing in Europe were likely to have damaged genes, making them “slower-growing and frailer than their wild kin.” Scientific advances have allowed plant breeders and genetic biologists to work on crossbreeding domesticated tomatoes with wild ones that have a thick, waxy skin that would allow the plant to retain water better.[2]

However, tomatoes were not always known for the sumptuousness with which we associate them today. While we know that the Aztecs were eating tomatoes by 700AD, in many parts of Europe – particularly countries in northern Europe, such as Britain – tomatoes were considered highly dangerous, and were therefore grown mostly for aesthetic purposes; consumption was avoided. While it is true that only the red fruit is edible and that all other parts of the plant are toxic, the tomato’s bad reputation extends beyond its legitimately poisonous vines. Many wealthier Europeans feared tomatoes because when a tomato (a highly acidic food) was eaten off a plate made of pewter (high in lead content), a chemical reaction occured and the lead would leach from the plate onto the fruit, causing lead poisoning. The true problem – pewter, or more generally, chemistry – was not recognized until many years later, at which point the tomato was exonerated.[3] Finally, the tomato’s scientific name – Solanum lycopersicum – itself promoted fear: “solanum” relating to the deadly nightshade plant which the tomato closely resembles, and “lycopersicum” meaning “wolf peach”.[4]

Yedikule domates

Yedikule domates

Part II:

Tomatoes grow well in South America, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East because the climate is perfectly suited to the plant’s needs. Tomatoes require copious direct sunlight and warm weather; their seeds germinate in temperatures of 68-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and consistent temperature between 65-75F is ideal for plant growth. Anything cooler slows down growth time, and any hotter calls for more frequent watering.[5] A tomato plant needs a moist (but not sodden) environment, so it is important to water it whenever the soil dries one to two inches.[6] Tomatoes like well-drained soil with fairly neutral 5.5 to 6.8pH, but loam – a soil composed of sand, silt, and clay – is frequently cited as the best because it drains easily and heats up quickly.[7]

Before planting tomatoes, one must “harden them off” – meaning, get them used to the outdoors and the night’s cold by placing them in the shade during the day and covering them at night for about a week. Seedlings are ready to be planted outside when they are approximately six inches tall, and they should be planted 18-36 inches apart from each other. While chemical fertilizer can be used, some gardening manuals recommend using kelp meal and bone meal as natural fertilizers. Some “old-time” gardeners will even toss in a tablespoon of Epson salt (for magnesium) when transplanting. Additionally, some people will “solarize” their soil by covering the plot with plastic to maximize the sun and heat before transplanting – solarizing also helps prevent disease, such as verticillium wilt.[8]

Fruit appears about 60 days after transplantation, and will start out small and green before ripening to a deep red. The plant can be protected from pests by putting a clear plastic bag around the fruit, leaving a slight opening for airflow. The damage done by insects, however, is “generally minimal compared to the damage done by spreading diseases by the insects.” Therefore, the best way to prevent disease is to reduce the number of insects by removing the weeds around the tomato plants, where insects tend to breed.[9]

Geoponika, a 10th century Byzantine farming manual, was compiled before tomatoes were brought to the region in the 16th century, and thus contains no references to tomatoes, which were not a food of the classical world. However, Book V discusses various farming techniques regarding vines, some of which relates to the tomato.[10] For instance, Book V 22 discusses the importance of pruning and the use of a “vine-prop” not unlike a tomato stake,[11] which not only provides the tomato physical support but also helps prevent disease.[12]

Plastic fruit protection

Plastic fruit protection

Part III:

It would be a challenge to grow up in the United States and be somehow unfamiliar with tomatoes or tomato-based products. The tomato is a quintessential ingredient in most salads, and is commonly sliced onto sandwiches and burgers. Ketchup – a tomato-based condiment – is slathered upon all manner of fast food, while “spaghetti with tomato sauce” is a staple of every restaurant’s children’s menu. Tomatoes comprise the bulk of dips and salsas, and tomato juice can be drunk plain or with vodka as a “Bloody Mary.” Tomatoes even have (so it is thought) miracle restorative properties: most people have consumed Campbell’s Tomato Soup at least once when ill.

There are many varieties of tomato. A sun-ripened summer tomato, the size of a tennis ball or larger, is a deep, earthy red. Its skin is taut but its shape is irregular. This tomato has a powerful, inviting musk – redolent of the soil from which it emerged. It is plump to the point of exploding; slicing it reveals the meat, seeds, and juices packed within. Its taste is tangy and sweet. The flesh is the sweetest, while the juices provide an acidic counterpoint, creating a tension that pleasures all the taste buds. So easily is this tomato sliced that one wonders whether it was invented for that very purpose. Plopping a section in one’s mouth initiates a chain of pleasurable sensations, as subtly varied flavors vie for attention on the tongue. Tomatoes require little in the way of chewing and thus can be consumed too quickly, the joy over all too soon. Not surprisingly, an array of accompaniments and preparations has evolved to delay gratification and enhance the enjoyment. For example, tomatoes may be diced and served over rustic bread lightly toasted or grilled, the result being the tomato’s juices fill the bread’s crevices and crannies and create a whole the taste of which is greater than the sum of its parts. A tomato also makes an excellent accompaniment to a cheese such as mozzarella, often served in slices interspersed tomoato/cheese/basil and drizzled with olive oil.

Although tomatoes only entered Turkish cooking about 100 years ago, it has become an invaluable element of Turkish cuisine.[13] Tomatoes or tomato pastes are used in many dishes, including lahmacun, acili ezme, and fasulye pilaki – tomatoes are even featured in breakfast dishes such as menemen.

Domates Dolmasi Recipe:[14]

Domates Dolmasi

Domates Dolmasi

Ingredients:

  • 4 large tomatoes
  • 1 medium size onion, chopped
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 200 gr medium ground beef
  • 2tbsp pilaf, boiled
  • 2 tbsp parsley, chopped
  • 2 tbsp dill, chopped
  • 4 tbsp crushed tomato, in a can
  • 1 tbsp red pepper paste
  • ½ + 1 cup beef stock
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper

Instructions:

Cut off the tops of the tomatoes and scrape out the insides. Prepare the filling by sautéing the onion with the butter and add the beef until light brown. Add the crushed tomatoes, pepper paste, and beef stock and cook for 15 minutes. Add the rice and herbs.

Fill the tomatoes with the filling and cook for 40 minutes. Serve with yogurt and garlic.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2759208/

[2] http://news.discovery.com/earth/plants/tomatoes-genetic-journey-from-wild-to-salad-13062.htm

[3] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-the-tomato-was-feared-in-europe-for-more-than-200-years-863735/?no-ist

[4] http://www.planetnatural.com/tomato-gardening-guru/history/

[5] http://homeguides.sfgate.com/conditions-tomatoes-need-grow-66550.html

[6] http://homeguides.sfgate.com/conditions-tomatoes-need-grow-66550.html

[7] http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/factsheets/tp_05_gtomato.html

[8] http://www.planetnatural.com/tomato-gardening-guru/planting-tomatoes/

[9] http://www.tomatofest.com/tomato-diseases-pests.html

[10]Cassianus, Bassus. Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. 2011, 123-148.

[11] Ibid, 135.

[12] http://awaytogarden.com/how-to-grow-tomatoes-good-tomato-hygiene/

[13] http://www.turkish-cuisine.org/english/pages.php?ParentID=6&PagingIndex=2

[14] http://www.turkishcookbook.com/2007/04/tomato-dolma.php

Istanbul’s Agricultural Past: An Ekphrasis Revealed Across The Centuries

This week’s readings, particularly the primary source texts, provide a window into Istanbul’s agricultural past. Through the Typikons of the monastery of St. Mamas and the convents of Lips, Kosmas, and Damien, and in the surveys of both 1455 and 1735 – along with the highly detailed advice of the Geoponika farming handbook – we glean valuable data and context regarding the agricultural production of the day and the farming practices as well as the diet of Istanbul’s citizens.

In the survey of Istanbul of 1455 (Inalcik), we are provided an evaluation of the city, broken down quarter-by-quarter. We learn the number and size of its houses and the identity, professions, and religious profiles of the inhabitants. Interspersed with this detail are references to other structures from which we can glean information about the city’s agricultural production. For example, the survey contains references to the city’s gardens, vineries, stables, storehouses, mills, and wells, including their placement within certain quarters or neighborhoods. Some quarters or districts had little or no agricultural activity to speak of. Others, particularly those housing the city’s many monasteries, were clearly successful centers of food production. For instance, we learn that Quarter Balat II housed two gardens along with a citizen named “Ripotos,” identified as a gardener (Inalcik, 306-98); that Quarter Bab-i-I Edirne housed the evidently productive Monastery of Prohermez, which counted among its holdings three storehouses, and a vinery  (313); that Quarter Top-Yikigi was home to two mills and a garden (327-335), and that Quarter Alti-Mermer had a garden, a mill, and a well (347-350).  Quarter Kastel Hirige featured a monastery with four storehouses, stables, and two vineries (352); the Ayos Athanos monastery held a vinery and a storehouse (357), and Quarter Isa-Kermesi housed a factory for making linseed oil (358).       

The 1735 survey of the bostans of Istanbul, covering the neighborhoods of “Great Langa,” Kucuk, Yedikule, Ynibahce, and Cukurbostans, documents the continuing, indeed growing, prevalence of agricultural production in Istanbul. For example, we learn that there were 1,381 gardeners resident in the city, the vast majority of them Christians, tending over 344 individual bostans (1735 Survey of the Bustans) – not insignificant figures, particularly when compared to the greatly diminished numbers of the present day.

In the Typicons documenting life in the city’s monasteries and convents, we can glean further information about the food production and consumption of Istanbul’s population. First, we learn that the Convent of Lips employed a steward to oversee its various land holdings; the steward’s salary consisted of gold and “100 annonikoi modioi” each of wheat and barley, and “100 measures of wine” (Thomas & Hero, 1272). The Convent’s “Inventory of Property” provides an accounting of its vast agricultural holdings including many thousands of modioi of “arable land,” vineyards, gardens, and mills (1279-1281). The document goes on to provide a detailed recitation of the diet allowed the nuns, specifying “fish, cheese and legumes” on non-fast days; legumes, vegetables and “seasonal shellfish” on Mondays; and other days on which only “vegetables and legumes” were permitted (1258; 1275). The Typicon for the Monastery of St. Mamas provides an even more detailed prescribed diet of the monks, even specifying the manner in which such food should be prepared, to wit: “…two of three cooked dishes containing olive oil” or a meal “… composed of “legumes soaked in water and perhaps some raw vegetables and fruits” (Thomas & Hero, 1006). Clearly, the inhabitants enjoyed a varied if highly regulated diet.

Perhaps the most illuminating document to provide insights into the nature of farming in 10th century Istanbul is the Byzantine Greek farming manual Geoponika. From Book 12 we learn exactly what crops Istanbul’s residents were growing and consuming: beets, lettuce, cabbage, melons, turnips, mint, celery, leeks and onions, garlic, artichokes, mushrooms, and asparagus. We also learn the best soil for cultivation – non-clayey and “not too rough” – as well as how manure (the best being ash and pigeon dung) can be used to work Istanbul’s “clayey” soil and how the region’s sandy soil should be used to grow asparagus (Dalby, 248). Among the manual’s encyclopedic recommendations for addressing seemingly every conceivable cultivation, pest, and medicinal issue are a number of hygienic properties ascribed to certain plants – an emphasis on personal hygiene being central to the lives of city dwellers living in close proximity to one another. For example, rocket is described as being useful in cleaning up facial blemishes; it also “helps with smelly armpits” (261).

Book 12 also highlights the importance of gardens in proximity to the house, noting the gardens provide pleasure to the senses of sight and smell. The existence of texts like Geoponika and The Vienna Dioskorides highlights the important role of agriculture: “the extent to which people believed in the power of plants, and in the ability of men and women to harness that power” (Brubaker, 213).  

Finally, the examples of Ottoman historical literature included in the readings – for example, Hyrtakenos’ description of the garden of St. Anna, capturing the “science and art” of Byzantine gardening (Dolezal and Mavroudi, 115-118; 140-148) – provide further evidence of the importance of land cultivation in Istanbul history and culture. In addition, literature like Hyrtakenos’ Description of the Garden of St. Anna highlights another aspect about gardens that is frequently neglected: the spiritual feeling a garden can induce. While many sources on bostans focus on the production aspects of urban farming, Hyrtakenos’ detailed prose reminds us that gardens also possess authentic aesthetic qualities, and that the emotions evoked from merely being in the presence of nature’s beauty can be just as valuable as a garden’s tangibles products.    

These texts, while not necessarily set down for the purpose of telling the story of agriculture, nonetheless provide myriad clues to the agricultural heritage of Istanbul. They serve as an ekphrasis – a graphic, dramatic description of the city’s powerful agricultural past. 

Change and Continuity in Yedikule

Change and continuity. Those two words epitomize both the community of Yedikule and the story that is modern Istanbul. If a picture tells a thousand words, then these four images of the same Yedikule bostan and the community that surrounds it – taken at intervals over a 125-year period – captures at one glance the extraordinary changes that have overtaken this historic city in recent decades. Istanbul’s bostans have largely fallen victim to the engine of Istanbul’s economic success: a globalized economy, many major construction projects, rising land values, and an increasingly urbanized population no longer interested in farming as an occupation all have contributed to the demise of the bostans that were once such a distinctive feature of this city. However, Istanbul is a city featuring elements of timelessness and continuity as well as change, and these photos capture that element as well. While the ancient city wall continues to stand in surprisingly good condition, the bostans have largely disappeared from these photos and the Istanbul landscape as a whole. However, there is still some space for their return – literally and metaphorically – provided that the case for their continuing social and economic value is made and accepted.

 

Sebah, 1890s

When we look at Sebah’s photograph of Yedikule from the 1890s, we see an area characterized by greenery. This is not the open, largely barren landscape we see today. Rather, Yedikule is lush and forested – cultivated fields are interspersed with dense tree cover. An imposing line of cypress trees – like an advancing army – appears in the distance. Aside from the historic city wall, the land is largely undisturbed by human structures – a few modest houses can be seen, mostly to the left of the wall, and the spire of a mosque appears in the distance. However, though indicating the presence of a community, these buildings are secondary players in the scene depicted – here, nature and farming predominate. Although the colorless photo is old and grainy, the lushness, vitality, and abundance of the land is palpable, as is the respect and reverence it is accorded.

 

Artamonoff, 1937

Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection, RV53, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

 

Artamonoff, 1938

Unknown, 1938

Robert L. Van Nice Collection, 2012.0013.0031, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

 

Turning to the photographs from 1937 and 1938, we see the same land almost fifty years later, though it might take a moment to realize it. The once largely rural, arboreal vista is no more. Artamonoff’s photograph, taken in February when the earth is barren and the trees skeletal, highlights the disappearance of the tree cover and general foliage, but the observation holds true for the summertime 1938 photograph as well. The supremacy of nature that characterized the 1890s landscape has been transformed by the late 1930s into a landscape of cultivated plots contained by a growing urban presence. Most of the trees have been replaced by houses, and the land that appears here has been tamed into smaller, controlled plots. The once-mighty army of cypress trees on the far hill has been significantly thinned, though it still stands. However, while the landscape has changed, the continued presence of the bostan fields, and the evident care in their cultivation, is testament to the continued importance of farming to the Yedikule community, despite the encroaching development. And although more buildings have been constructed, the “sacred space” for the gardens between those buildings and the city walls so prominently featured in Sabah’s photograph has been maintained.

 

Silber, 2014

Silber, 2014

Fast-forward to 2014, where I stand on the same ancient city walls featured in Sebah’s photo looking out onto… what, exactly? It is not immediately clear. Aleksandar walks us through a guided-meditation description of the once lively garden that occupied the space before us only a year earlier, but it is difficult to imagine that anything once grew here – even the weeds seem to be having a difficult time surviving in the dehydrated soil. A dense colony of buildings has now managed to extend its presence nearly to the edge of the wall, and there is not a garden in sight. Looking out onto this arid urban wasteland, one wonders: what will become of this former bostan? Will the results of the city’s development plan – detailed on a billboard located somewhere on the lot – be able to replicate and/or surpass the vibrancy of the former farming community?

The myriad social and economic benefits of the bostans exist both in tangibles and intangibles. In terms of tangibles, the bostans provide a local and affordable food source in an increasingly expensive city where food costs can consume 30-40% of an average family’s income. They also provide a model of local sustainability countering the global agri-business model of the mass, long-distance transport of food – with the concurrent nutritional and ecological repercussions. In terms of intangibles, there is the value of preserving active green spaces in city planning (as opposed to inanimate, passive green spaces), the loss of community that surrounded local food production and the parallel economy of neighborhood food sharing that resulted, and the loss of a historic institution that marked Istanbul as being unique among other big cities (how many other large cities grew sufficient produce within its city limits to supply a noteworthy portion of the vegetal needs of its population until the mid-1950s?)

The changes to the landscape I have identified in comparing my 2014 photo to the photos of previous years are not shocking. It is not uncommon for cities to change, and while change is not a perfectly linear process, patterns and trends – such as a general shift away from the prevalence of agriculture – can be observed. However, what is shocking about the differences observed in Yedikule over the years that we have seen photographed is the fact that the vast transformation of this landscape has occurred largely in recent years, when the assault against the bostan began in earnest. That an Istanbul institution that survived for centuries could be largely destroyed in such a short period of time reveals how quickly history can be erased. And it also reveals just how quickly the defenders of the bostans will need to move if they want to save them.