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. 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.
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. 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”.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. For instance, Book V 22 discusses the importance of pruning and the use of a “vine-prop” not unlike a tomato stake, which not only provides the tomato physical support but also helps prevent disease.
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. 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:
- 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
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.
Cassianus, Bassus. Geoponika: Farm Work: A Modern Translation of the Roman and Byzantine Farming Handbook. 2011, 123-148.
 Ibid, 135.