For dinner the other night I roasted tomatoes, and it got me thinking about the Academy Awards of all things! (I know this seems odd, but it’s how my brain works—bear with me here.) In particular, I realized that the tomato resembles a Hollywood movie star. Like those stars and starlets gliding across the red carpet, everyone goes gaga over the tomato. The tomato is the Scarlet Johansson or the Keira Knightley of the food world—the smooth shiny, bright skin; the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity; the versatility. And like a beautiful movie star who must “go ugly” to win an Oscar (think Charlize Theron in Monster), tomatoes now have the “ugly” heirloom in order to be taken seriously by the urban foodie hipster.
But how did the tomato become such a star? To push this analogy to its limits, the tomato, like Norma Jean and many other movies stars, comes from humble roots. (No pun intended!)
The tomato is originally from present-day Peru, once part of the Inca Empire. After the Spanish conquered the Incas, the tomato made its way to Spain in the 16th century, and from there to Italy, France, and even England. (Though for anyone who has tasted traditional English “food,” it is clear that the tomato was wasted on the English.)
Today we cannot imagine food without the tomato. In France, there would be no ratatouille; in America, no pizza; in Italy, no spaghetti. Until the 18th century, however, the tomato was thought to be poisonous and remained ornamental, going by such lyrical phrases as “Peruvian Apple,”“Acacia Apple,” or the “Love Apple” in France. Thomas Jefferson apparently stood on the steps of Monticello and ate a tomato publicly to prove that it was not poisonous.
While the tomato today is no longer considered poisonous, it is not without controversy. The tomato has become the boîte noire of modern food production; a tempestuous melange of food, history, geography, and even politics.
And the epicenter of this controversy resides in California. (Ironic, huh?!)
As Evan D.G. Faser & Andre Rimas point out in their 2010 book, Empires of Food (2010), “[m]odern agriculture reached its apogee in California.” More specifically, they note that “[i]n the annals of human agriculture, rarely has any fruit proved as profitable as the California tomato.” Point of fact: tomato processing is now the second-largest processed food business in North America after frozen potatoes.
Of course this revolution in food production has fed a lot of Americans, who spend less on their food than just about any people on the planet. And of course, every revolution has its counter-revolution. Enter the “slow food movement,” the “locavore movement;” the “heirloom tomato” movement.
And while I don’t fault all these movements—they have their merits—they may be based on a false premise. Food has never, truly been “local” or truly “natural.” Even the most non-GMO wheat, corn, barley, or carrots ever grown are all derived from variants genetically modified over many generations in the ancient world. (Granted, we can do it a lot faster now and maybe faster than our bodies can adapt to the changes.) And food and flavors, like people, have always migrated from place to place. As Faser & Rimas state: “[a]part from inside a patch or two of Amazonian bush or a forgotten New Guinean gully, there’s no such thing as a purely regional cuisine. Promiscuity in foodstuffs is part of human nature.”
So, when food gets political, as it is wont to do these days, don’t forget that there never was a “golden age” where we were in harmony with food production. Of course, this is not to say we shouldn’t be mindful of the future—just don’t forget about the past. And don’t forget that “ugly” ain’t always better.