Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 10: Tomatoes

Another member of the nightshade family, and like potatoes, native, in it's wild state, to South America.  The tomato is another massive gift to the rest of world.  A mean where would Italian cuisine be without it??  The English have almost as many variations on the Tomato Tea Sandwich, as they do the ubiquitous Cucumber Sandwich.  Perhaps India's most popular salad is a variation on equal parts onion, cucumber and tomato, they also have a tomato chutney, that is also popular in England.  Kosher Jewish cuisine is fond of variations on the pickled green tomato.  The list is almost endless.  Even some native groups benefited from the post-colonial spread of the tomato.  Cherokees were particularly fond of them.

Yet another word that derives from Nahuatl, the language of the Toltec and Aztec empires.  The word that the Spanish encountered in the early 16th century was tomatl, which was then corrupted into Tomate and later tomato.  [It is an interesting fact, that the so called Aztec or Mexican language has given the entire world more loan words than any other Native American language combined!]  There has been a great deal of debate as to whether it should be recognized as a fruit or a vegetable.  Botanically speaking, it's a fruit, but then again so is squash and hot peppers; actually to botanically precise, they are berries.  The US Supreme Court, for purposes of import inspection has classified it by government standards as a vegetable.

Although the above yellow cherry tomato are from a modern cultivar, the original domestic tomato is thought to have looked very much like this, and was still being grown, along with other redder and larger varieties, in the Chinampas of Xochimilco when the Spanish arrived at Tenochtitan in 1519.  By this time cultivation of the tomatoes had been going on for thousands of years and spread  from Mexico south all the way to parts of South America, where the wild plant had originated. It is thought the first real cultivation of the fruit occurred in Veracruz amongst the so-called "Olmec" people, but this yet to be proven.  Certainly some cultivars remained in Peru, as they were grown in the Incan empire as well.

Heirloom Cherokee Purple on the vine

Cherokee Purple up close

Tomatoes under cultivation love companion plantings, especially all manner of herbs.  Growing a few plants in the herbs garden, goes a long way toward staving off a number of pests that prey on the plants; especially if they are the heirloom variety, many of which were hybridized in companion planting situations.  Take the famous Cherokee Purple, they were often put in corn fields.  A lot of native planted corn, bean and squash together to give the squash and beans something to run on, some heirlooms were added to the planting mound much, much later on.  Old world vegetables, such the carrot and parsnip have been found very beneficial to tomatoes of any sort, when planted near by.  [I always plant with sprouted carrots.].  Ground cover herbs, like mint help prevent ground moisture loss (just be aware that they escape beds easily!!).

White Tomatoes on the vine

In recent tomato history, workers from Immokalee Florida, many of which are Native Americans, including a large number of Mayans from other countries, have protested being exploited in a loop-hole that forces many of them to work for less than minimum wage, even if they are in the country legally, with a valid up to date green card.  The New York Times had a blog post on the situation by in May by Mark Bittman.  Barry Estrabrook over at Gourmet online gives us "The Politics of the Plate."  DC Direct Action News has a video of a recent protest.  And finally there is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

As to nutrients, tomatoes are high in vitamin C when they are eaten raw--some much more so than others.  They a high source of vitamin A.  Recently there has been a lot of talk of lycopene, which is only found in tomatoes with the crimson gene.  It is listed as "powerful antioxidant"--whether it is really a helpful source of dietary supplement is up to debate.  Interestingly, tomatoes of different hues have different genes that are listed as "anti-oxidant."  For example, anthocyanin is also listed as anti-oxidant;" when it occurs in tomatoes in large quantities, it turn them blue.  There are a number of the genetic differences that occur in tomatoes, all these gene difference are listed as "anti-oxidant"--they all regulate what color the fruit will be.

Blue Tomatoes

Uses for tomatoes are almost too numerous to list, and most people are aware of various well known uses for them around the world.  In the native kitchen, they go into Indigenous ceviches in Peru, famously make up most types of Salsa, cooked and raw, in Mexico, are made into salads with other indigenous ingredients, and go really well with roasted green chiles, or a dressing made of dried ancho pods.  Fried Green Tomatoes are supposed to by a Native American invention.  There are tomato pones, stewed tomato dishes with corn, stuffed tomatoes, and they go into all manner of traditional stews from Posole to Gumbo.   They are found in soups of all sorts:  hot and cold, and there is now way a vinegary Veracruz style red Mole (molli) would ever exist without them!  The list, of course, goes on.

Maque Choux

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