Tomato myths still sow many seeds of confusion
August 16, 2011
Source: MICHELLE LOCKE, The Associated Press
Any way you slice it, the tomato is one confusing comestible.
There's the whole identity crisis thing — is it a fruit or a vegetable? And don't get us started on the tuh-MAY-to, tuh-MAH-to thing. It's enough to drive anyone ba-NAY-nas.
Here are what tomato lovers and experts have to say about some common misconceptions about this vine product.
— FRUIT OR VEGETABLE?
This is the kind of thing that can spark quite the argument, with both sides passionately supporting their claims. Oddly enough, both are right, at least according to the USDA's Economic Research Service. Yes, botanically speaking the tomato is a fruit, but horticulturally and legally, it is considered a vegetable.
This debate has been adjudicated by none other than the U.S. Supreme Court. It happened in the late 19th century in connection with a challenge to tariffs on imported produce. The high court ruled in Nix vs. Hedden that despite the botanical definition, tomatoes are a vegetable, in part because at the tables of the time they were served as "the principal part of the repast" and not as dessert.
No telling what the justices would have done in today's envelope-pushing culinary world of tomato jams and gelatos.
A side note: Today's tomatoes are mainly tariff-free since those that aren't grown domestically are mostly imported from Mexico and Canada, which are covered by the NAFTA free trade zone.
— THE BIG CHILL
A lot of people pick out the freshest, juiciest tomatoes they can find, take them home. and bundle them into the fridge, thereby killing all that wonderful aroma and flavor.
Instead, tomatoes should be stored at room temperature, says chef Matthew Lowe of the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate in Fulton, Calif., which hosts an annual Heirloom Tomato Festival. Put the tomatoes in the fridge and "you lose that smell, that taste you get from the aroma, and you never get it back."
That means that tomatoes are not like cheese, which should be refrigerated for storage then allowed to come to room temperature before serving. With tomatoes, once chilled, there's no going back.
— TOXIC TOMATOES?
Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, just like peppers and eggplants, which have led some in the past to believe the fruit is poisonous. In fact, the tomato is harmless. However, Lowe notes, you don't want to eat the leaves or other parts of the plant.
On the other hand, your parents were correct. If you eat lots of tomato seeds, one is likely to grown in your stomach. Not.
— RED EQUALS RIPE
Tomatoes come in all shapes and colors, from white to mahogany. "I am fascinated by the sheer variety of tomatoes available — black ones, yellow ones, stripy ones and white ones in all sorts of shapes and sizes," says Gail Harland, author of "Tomato: A guide to the pleasures of choosing, growing and cooking."
Lowe likes to use color as a wine-pairing tool, matching lighter wines with paler varieties of tomato and more robust reds with their color counterparts.
Tomatoes are best picked absolutely ripe, so if you have access to a farmer's market selling freshly picked tomatoes, grow your own or are lucky enough to have a generous and green-thumbed friend, you're getting tomatoes at their best and juiciest. "Some of the best tomatoes don't actually make it out of the garden," says Lowe.
Tomatoes intended for shipping to the food service industry — to be served on hamburgers, etc. — often are picked before they are ripe, when they are firmer and can stand up to the journey better, and are then ripened by exposure to ethylene, a naturally occurring gas. You can do the same thing at home by putting unripe tomatoes in a paper bag with bananas or apples, which emit ethylene gas.
Supermarket tomatoes come in for some pretty harsh criticism, though in recent years products have improved with many being grown hydroponically in huge greenhouses, allowing for a year-round supply.
"What you can buy at the supermarket now is probably superior to the choices that you had 15 to 20 years ago," says Tim Hartz, cooperative extension specialist in the University of California, Davis, plant sciences department. "For the life of me I don't understand all the consternation that some people have about the quality of the tomatoes at the supermarket."
Winter tomatoes aren't the best, he agrees, which is not so surprising since it's the offseason. Even a greenhouse tomato, once out of the greenhouse, may be exposed to cold that will impinge on taste.
What about those "on the vine" tomatoes marketed as being superior to stem-less tomatoes?
That, says the USDA diplomatically, is a subjective decision that only the consumer can make. Physiologically, tomatoes with or without stems shouldn't be different if they're handled properly.
"It's a presentation issue," says Hartz.
— AND ONE MORE THING.
In her research, Harland, who lives in Britain, was intrigued to learn about the tomato festival at Bunol near Valencia in Spain. Called La Tomatina, this takes place on the last Wednesday of August and is "in effect, the world's biggest food fight, involving some 20,000 participants and several truckloads of tomatoes."
There are rules; tomatoes must be crushed before being tossed to avoid injury and can only be thrown during a designated period. The fight is part of a weeklong festival of parties, concerts, fireworks and cookery demonstrations and "I am determined to visit one year!" says Harland.
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