Tomato History (from wild fruit to Franken-veggie)
Beginnings in Europe
Beginnings in America
In North America. early on, Carolinians grew tomatoes on their plantations, while the citizens of New Orleans relished the tomato as much as their relatives back in France. Cajuns used it in their gumbos and jambalayas and by 1779 had invented the all-purpose ketchup. Their French kinfolk in Maine combined tomatoes with local seafood. In 1812 a recipe for tomato ketchup was published by ex-colonist James Mease living in Nova Scotia.
A famous Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, a noted Francophile and experimental farmer, grew tomatoes at his Monticello farm and served them fresh with “French fries” dosed with plentiful French wine. In 1781 he included tomatoes among the common vegetable found in Virginia gardens in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and he grows them in his own garden at Monticello in 1809 when he retired from public service. Tomato recipes from Monticello include gumbos, preserves, pickles, and omelets. Jefferson must also have had a taste for Italian cooking, for it’s alleged he smuggled a pasta machine into the country. Jefferson's cousin, Mary Randolph, included a recipe for ketchup in her 1824 published cookbook The Virginia Housewife.
But in New England suspicions about the fruit's toxicity lingered. It’s reported that in 1802 an Italian painter who tried to make extra spending cash by selling tomatoes failed to convince citizens of Salem, Mass., to even taste the fruit. When in 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, scion of a well-known Salem, NJ, family and reputed friend of George Washington, announced he intended to consume a full bushel of tomatoes on the front steps of the Courthouse, his own doctor predicted, “The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid, in one dose, and you're dead. If the Wolf Peach is too ripe and warmed by the sun, he'll be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, I must warn him that the skin...will stick to his stomach and cause cancer.” It's said a large crowd gathered to watch the Colonel enjoy what they were convinced would be his last meal. But seeing that he did not immediately keel over dead, they cheered vociferously while he finished the bushel and the firemen’s band struck up a peppy song. Some historians cast doubt on the veracity of Colonel Gibbon's tomato eating anecdote, but fact or fiction, after 1820 publications in the region such as The Cook's Own Book (1832), and the Shaker Gardener's Manual (1843) began including tomato recipes. Tomato seeds now had value and The Landreth Seed Company, established in 1784 and noted for George Washington once having had a past-due account there, began offering them for sell.
During the Colonial Period and up until the Civil war, the most commonly grown tomato variety was Early Large Red. It was grown by the Shakers of Hancock, Mass. in the 1830's and was included in Fearing Burr's 1865 book, Field and Garden Vegetables of America. The sweet, richly flavored. tough-skinned tomatoes were mostly used for soups, ketchup, and sauces.
By 1835 tomatoes were in high demand in Boston’s Quincy Market. Thomas Bridgeman offered 4 varieties for sell in his 1847 seed catalogue. Seed merchant Robert Buist advertised 8 cultivars in his 1858 catalogue and commented , "In taking retrospect of the last eighteen years, there is no vegetable in the catalogue that has obtained such popularity in so short a period.” The tomato had gained such general acceptance that it began to be thought of by many as a symbol of good fortune. So began the tradition of placing a tomato on the mantle of a new home for luck. During the winter and spring months real tomatoes were unavailable so red cloth stuffed with sawdust had to do. These artificial tomato substitutes also worked well for storing pins and needles and became the prototype for many pincushions still used today.
An enterprising Jonas Yerkes saw dollars to be made from the discarded tomato skins, cores, and rejected green tomatoes left over from the canning process. To these he added lots of sugar and vinegar and launched a ketchup business that grew to be national by 1837.
Jamesburg NJ resident Harrison W. Crosby in 1847 became the first American to can tomatoes commercially. He discovered the method of stewing tomatoes and soldering lids on tin cans while conducting experiments in Billy West Tavern. Mr. Crosby was so proud of his success he sent samples of his canned tomatoes to the editor of The New York Times, President James Polk, and Queen Victoria. John Dunn Buckelew was so impressed with Crosby's discovery that he established a cannery with Crosby as supervisor to mass produce Crosby's Celebrated Ketchup hereby launching NJ as the tomato canning capital of America. NJ once had as many as 59 tomato processors.
Commercialization By 1863 seeds of 23 cultivars were available for purchase including the first large, red, smooth-skinned variety, Trophy, developed by Dr. T.J. Hand by crossing a cherry tomato with full sized one. Advertised as having a sweet, mild flavor, 5-7 ounce, round tomatoes ideal for slicing, this 80 day indeterminate was offered by Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., of Newport, Rhode Island at the skyrocket price of $.25 per seed or $5.00 per packet of 20. A Union cavalry officer of some note during the Civil War, even more famous as New York City’s Commissioner of Street Cleaning afterwards, the Colonel also earned a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as an expert in the field of scientific agriculture.
After immigrating to America from Scotland in 1843, Peter Henderson worked for New York horticulturalist Grant Thorburn, then Robert Buist. In 1865 Peter published the first book on market gardening in the US, Gardening for Profit. It held high praise for Waring's tomato.
"... interest taken in this fruit and the confidence placed in Mr. Waring's statements, led to the sale of seeds to a large amount to growers in all parts of the country. I had seen the "Trophy" growing, the previous season, at "Ogden Farm," at Newport, R. I., and while I felt that Mr. Waring's description was by no means exaggerated, I declined to give him my opinion until it had been tested in other localities, where soil and climate were different. In 1870 I planted out a couple of dozen plants which had been started in the usual way, and tied them to stakes. Under the same conditions I planted the "New York Market," and "Rising Sun," the varieties we considered the best and earliest of last year's experiment. In earliness, the "Trophy" had no perceptible advantage over the other two" but in size, smoothness, and beauty of coloring, as well as in solidity and flavor, it certainly exceeded them. So that taking it all and all, I believe it to be thus far unexcelled, whether grown for private use or, for market purposes. This opinion I find very generally concurred in all sections of the country wherever it has been submitted to a trial test with others."
horticulture was becoming a profitable business, growers often complained that the tomatoes they actually grew were
nothing like the ones advertised. After paying top prices for what were
supposed to be premium seeds, growers instead often got severely ribbed, hard
cored, sour tasting, small tomatoes with hollow fruit.
It was a pioneering seedsman in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Alexander Livingston, who made the discovery that led to more reliable, uniform crop production. Having been raised on a frontier farm, Alexander had little exposure to formal education. But he was a tenacious experimenter determined to produce a tomato with better flavor and more uniform characteristics. After failing repeatedly in attempts at hybridization, Alexander switched to seed selection and fortuitously found a superior plant among his trials. He spent the next five years carefully choosing only seeds from the best plants from this original stock to propagate. This resulted in the improved strain he wanted and in 1870 Livingston introduced his Paragon tomato. Paragon consistently produced large, sweet tasting, perfectly smooth skinned, deep-red fruits - just like the ones advertised. Livingston also introduced Acme, Golden Queen, and Perfection.
In 1871 Peter Henderson established his own seed company that developed it own landmark tomato, Crimson Cushion developed from a sport of Red Ponderosa. Introduced in 1892, Crimson Cushion produced huge, earlier and deeper red than Ponderosa, fruit with deliciously rich, thick, meaty flesh.
In 1869, 25 year old German born, Henry John Heinz of Sharpsburg, PA, began delivering horseradish, sauerkraut, vinegar and pickles to local grocers in Pittsburgh and surrounding villages. In 1872 E.J. Noble became a joint owner and the company moved to nearby Pittsburgh changing its name from the Anchor Pickle and Vinegar Works to Heinz, Noble & Company. A banking panic in 1875 forced the company into bankruptcy. Henry formed a new company, F. & J. Heinz, with the help of his brother John and cousin Frederick. The reformulated company added tomato ketchup to its offerings advertising its new condiment as "Blessed relief for Mother and the other women in the household." Apple butter, mustard, tomato soup, olives, baked beans followed shortly thereafter.
Also in 1869 Abraham Anderson and Joseph Campbell formed the the Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company in Camden, New Jersey. Their canned Celebrated Beefsteak Tomato won an award for quality at Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exposition.
Up till 1890 all tomato canning was hand labor intensive, but in that year mechanized peeling tables were employed greatly speeding up the process. The new company really took off when $7.50 a week employee Dr. John T. Dorrance invented condensed soup in 1897 reducing the cost of a can of soup from thirty cents to a dime. The Campbell Kids were born in 1904 and posted in trolley cars in 378 cities. Cornell University's football team's bright red and white colors were adopted by the company a year later. and in 1922 "Soup" became the company's middle name. In the 1930's, with the advent of commercial radio, came the familiar "M’m! M’m! Good!" jingle on popular shows like Amos "N Andy.
The tomato becomes a vegetable
In 1883, in an effort to help the American farmer, the United State Congress imposed a 10% tariff on all imported vegetables. Under the Schedule G.-Provisions of this legislation tariffs were placed on tomatoes imported from the West Indies . Edward L. Hedden, tax collector of the port of New York, was sued by the Nix Family for the taxes he had imposed on their tomato importing business. They based their lawsuit on the undisputable scientific fact that a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. Therefore the tariff should not apply. On April 24, 1893 the case reached the Supreme Court in Nix vs. Hedden. In the court's decision on May 10, 1893 Justice Gray wrote, "Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people...all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert."
An obscure Austrian Monk named Gregor Mendel in 1856 began conducting breeding experiments with pea plants. The generalizations he made from analyzing his results from over 28,000 plants were published in 1866 in the Journal of the Brno Natural History Society. He hypothesized the presence of genes he called factors and discovered they had dominant and recessive traits. However, when he died at age 62 in 1884 his vanguard research on heredity had received little public attention.
A Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries conducted hybridization experiments that led him to publish in 1899 basically the same conclusions drawn by Mendel. When he and two other scientists became aware of Mendel's pioneering research, the Monk was given full credit and his his work was republished in 1900. This time it drew attention.
Born on an Iowa farm, young, 1910 graduate of Iowa State College, Henry A. Wallace began experimenting with seed corn to increase yields. In 1924 he began selling 'Copper Cross' hybrid seed corn. Two years later Wallace with a group of Des Moines business men raised $7000 to found the 'Hi-Bred Corn Company' which became 'Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company' in 1935. Its first year Hi-Bred sold 650 bushels of seed. By 1940 over 90% of the seed corn sold in America was hybrid.
WWII food shortages and the government's victory-garden push motivated Burpee to focus on improving home garden vegetables. In 1945 Burpee introduced the Fordhook Hybrid Tomato. It was the best tomato developed to date but no match for what was to come next. Oved Shifriss was born in Israel and came to the United States in 1936 where he earned a doctorate in genetics at Cornell University. He was employed as director of vegetable research for Burpee in Warminster, PA, where after experimenting with thousands of tomato hybrid crosses he revolutionize tomato gardening in 1949 by introducing Burpee's "Big Boy" hybrid tomato. Although Big Boy's genetic heritage is a well protected trade secret, it's suspected that its parentage may include some great flavored Russian cultivars well known to Dr. Shifriss's father who immigrated from Odessa to Israel. Compared to other tomatoes gardeners were growing at the time, Big Boys were less straggly, more resistant to disease, and reliably produced more fruit. Its 78 day maturity out-paced most non-hybrids by a week or more. Burpee's new tomato became an instant success when introduced and its popularity lingers on even today.
Gordie and the square tomato.
The idea of mechanically harvesting a soft tomato seemed ridiculous to most reasoning folk at University of California's Davis campus. But not to UC's crop researcher Gordie "Jack" C. Hanna. Much to his colleague's dismay, in 1942 Gordie began his search for the tomato that could stand up to the rigors of machine harvesting. Although his friends warned him he could ruin UC's reputation through such a Quixotic quest, Gordie continued to walk tomato fields tossing tomatoes from the field unto the road. Those that didn't smash or crack were selected for his breeding program. In 1949 Gordie also began collaborating with Coby Lorenzen in UC's agricultural engineering department to develop a harvester that could handle such a hardy specimen.
By 1962 both projects met with success. Hanna after experimenting with over 2000 cultivars had his VF-145 tomato which instantly became dubbed 'the square tomato'. The VF-145 was firm, the fruits easily detached from the vine, and most ripened at the same time. Lorenzen had his harvester ready for farm machinery manufacturer Ernest Blackwelder to build. The new invention cut the plants off at ground level, separated the fruits from the vine, discarded the vine, and pitched the tomatoes into a gondola truck to be hauled to market. This new approach to tomato-culture was adopted quickly by the farm community. In 1964 only 25% of California's tomato crop was machine harvested. By 1970 almost 100% of the Golden State's tomatoes were.
Ketchup becomes a vegetable
In 1981 Congress cut $1 billion from the United States Department of Agriculture's budget for the school lunch program. For a meal to be subsidized by USDA it had to include two servings of fruit or vegetables. A panel of government experts (I smell an oxymoron there) decided that since kids threw away the lima beans and broccoli anyway, to save money while serving meals that students would actually eat, why not allow more latitude in what state officials could define as a fruit or vegetable serving. Not only ketchup, but pickle relish also met the new standards. When the new rules became public, public criticism was harsh. The media ridiculed the new Reagan administration while elected Democrats took every opportunity to accuse Republicans of starving poor children. In all fairness to the 'Gipper', the decision-making never reached his level. The proposal was quickly withdrawn and the USDA official in charge fired, but the ketchup stain on Reagan's presidency still remains.
Tomatoes from Space
In 1984 millions of Park Seed Company tomato seeds were launched into space aboard the Challenger shuttle. More than 12.5 million Rutgers California Supreme seeds spent 5 years in orbit aboard NASA's Long Duration Exposure Facility. The Columbia shuttle retrieved the tomato seeds in 1989 and experiment kits containing 50 space seeds and 50 control seeds were distributed to 40,000 elementary, high school, and colleges across the U.S.A. and 34 foreign countries. Three million participating students designed their own research projects and sent their observations back to NASA. The results published in 1991 found no mutants, but the space seeds germinated and grew slightly faster. They also produced more chlorophyll and carotenes than the control group seeds. But the effects were found to be only temporary, and in flavor and every other way the space tomatoes were significantly identical to the control plants. Want to join the experiment? Space seeds can still be purchased from Territorial Seed Co. .
Genetic Engineering is the latest advance in horticulture technology. Calgene Fresh Inc. discovered the gene that caused tomatoes to soften when they ripen. By turning this gene off a tomato would turn red while remaining firm. Calgene's 'Flavr Savr' tomato could ripen on the vine before harvest and still have a longer than natural life in the produce section of your local supermarket. The FDA declared Flavr Savr safe to eat and it went on store shelves in 1994. Nevertheless consumers were skeptical of what many in the media were calling 'Franken Food'. Green Peace and other activists groups led protests against the new bio-tech. Hollywood and politicians demagogued as well. When Monsanto bought out Calgene in 1997 Flavr Savr was taken off the market.
While devoted to organic techniques and biased towards heirloom varieties as a backyard gardener, I do not see the efforts to prevent the latest discoveries in bio-tech being any more successful than were the Luddites in halting the industrial revolution in England or the Grange's revolt against the railroads here. I do think the protests serve the useful purpose of encouraging government oversight and scientist self-imposing safeguards. I also want to see preserved for future generations the heirloom cultivars and best horticultural practices of the past. Actually I remember eating Flavr Savr tomatoes and thinking they were OK but not worth the premium cost.
The demise of Flavr Savr was only a minor setback in the world of bio-technology. The revolution goes on. Still, some scientist question the efficacy of bio-tech food.
Back to the Future - Heirlooms
As agri-business replaced the family farm, fewer and fewer farmers planted more and more of the same kind of seed. With cultivars like Rutgers, VF-145, and Big Boy in such universal demand, seed, companies had little reason to continue offering varieties that only a few contrarians sought. Backyard gardening seemed to be disappearing too as small farming communities lost population to suburbia. Seed companies were caught up in merger-mania, consolidating to where only a few mega-conglomerates monopolized the market.
Kent and Diane Whealy were the recipients of heirlooms passed down through family through great-grandparents who left Bavaria in the 1870's. One of these was German Pink Tomato [picture right]. They became concerned that heirlooms were being lost. This is not only a sentimental and esthetic lose, it is a looming catastrophic disaster. As the potato famine in Ireland taught, relying on only a few strains of any given type of plant is dangerous. Genetic diversity is necessary for our survival.
In 1975 Diane and Kent began the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. The idea of saving heirlooms received rapid acceptance. Membership has quickly grown from the original 8 to well over 1000. More than 21,000 rare fruits and vegetable are listed with the exchange.
Besides Kent and Diane, two other individuals who deserve recognition for their advocacy and efforts in preserving heirlooms are Carolyn Male and Craig LeHoullier. Dr. Male is a lifetime Member of SSE and has contributed hundreds of heirlooms for preservation. She has grown and evaluated more than 1,000 heirloom varieties herself. Dr. LeHoullier joined SSE in 1986. His personal heirloom collection also exceeds 1000. Craig also collects antique seed catalogs to glean their historical data. I'm sure there are many others deserving acclaim, but really, in the data-base of heirloom tomatoes I've searched, the names Whealy, Male and LeHoullier are ubiquitous. Thanks to them the public interest in heirloom varieties has exploded, and I think bio-diversity in the gene-pool of tomatoes, for now at least, is safe.
Forward to the Past - Hybrids
In the 1990's a team of USDA researchers at the Western Regional Research Center in Abany CA led by Dr. Ronald G. Buttery discovered furaneol, one of the flavorants that gives a tomato its distinct aroma and sweet taste. A vine-ripened tomato starts releasing the chemical compound, identified by Buttery as 2,5-dimethyl-4-hydroxy-3(2H)-furanone, once the fruit is sliced. Since Buttery's discovery plant breeders have identified the gene that controls furaneol and have been using the knowledge to create hybrids that just may beat old-fashioned heirlooms in taste tests. One new great tasting hybrid, although not bred with the furaneol discovery in mind, serendipitously proved to have high levels of the flavorant anyway and hence given the name Fabulous for its fabulous flavor. New hybrids that have been bred specifically for high levels of flavorant include: Mountain Glory, Red Defender, Scarlet Red, and SecuriTY 28.
KILLER TOMATOES 2008
A salmonella outbreak that began April 10 and sickened more than 1220 people in 42 states was first attributed to tomatoes. On July 17 the FDA lifted its warning on tomatoes and focused its investigation on Mexican jalapeno and Serrano peppers. On the July21st the FDA announced that the source of contamination was found. Mexican grown jalapeno peppers were the culprit.
SICK TOMATOES 2009
Bonnie Plants of Alabama, supplier of big box retailers like Wal-Mart, Lowe's, and Home Depot, on July 2 pulled plants out of stores in New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts because tomato seedling on shelves in a number of stores were found to be diseased with late blight - the same disease responsible for the 19th Century Irish Potato Famine. Although the disease has no effect on humans, it is extremely contagious and. fatal to plants.
FROZEN TOMATOES 2010
Southwest Florida farmers suffered over 5000 acres of tomatoes severely damaged due to extreme low temperatures the first two weeks of January 2010.
After days and nights spent nursing their crops through a series of light frosts and near frosts, the fight ended the morning of Jan. 11 when temperatures dipped to 25 degrees throughout most of Southwest Florida's inland tomato growing region. Some areas reported temperatures as low as 21 degrees. Much of the area suffered the below freezing temperatures for over eight hours. Experts estimate crop damage in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, and Hendry counties to amount to more than $100 million. Crops around Immokalee, LaBelle, and Clewiston were the hardest hit. Some reported 100% loss.
A little good news for the growers - for the tomatoes that were saved, the price per 25 pound box more than doubled, from $14 a box to over $30.
And the year 2010 for Florida tomato growers
ends just like it began with subfreezing temperature
threatening crops across the state the third
week of December.
RECESSION TOMATOES 2011
Tomato sells were a victim of the continuing anemic economy with its high unemployment, underemployment, and stagnant wages taking its toll on consumers. Demand for the higher priced heirlooms, on the vine clusters, and organically grown tomatoes suffered most. Shoppers chose to cut back buying fresh produce, including tomatoes, as one way to save.
WANT NO TOMATOES 2012
Michael Ogborn obviously did not want tomatoes on his Sonic burger. On April 12th the Vero Beach police arrested thirty-six year old Michael on a battery charge and placed him behind bars after he yelled at fast-food employees and punched the manager in the face. Ogborn was enraged to find tomatoes on his order. Wonder how he'd reacted to just plain o' catsup?
Hillary Clinton probably did not want tomatoes either!
BAD TOMATO DEALS 2013
The USA and Mexico reached a trade agreement effective March 4th ending a 16 year old agreement under which Mexico priced their tomatoes so cheaply Florida growers claimed they could not compete. Nearly half the tomatoes sold in the United States now come from Mexico. The deal raises the minimum price for winter tomatoes from 22 cents a pound to 31 cents. Even higher prices have been set for specialty and greenhouse tomatoes. While Mexico growers have invested heavily in greenhouses, most Floridian tomatoes are picked green and gas treated to ripen. Wal-Mart along with over 300 other US businesses argued in favor of Mexico's lower pricing during the negotiations.
The European Commission on May 6th considers a new law that criminalizes growing, reproducing, or trading "any vegetable seed or tree that has not been tested and approved by a new “EU Plant Variety Agency, who will make a list of approved plants. Moreover, an annual fee must also be paid to the Agency to keep them on the list, and if not paid, they cannot be grown."