A case of mistaken identity

The recipe

No, I am not going to reflect on who killed Tupac or who really killed John F Kennedy. Instead, I am going to look into something that is very close to my heart and the hearts of just about all human beings I know all around the world.

The tomato – or as it was originally called “tomatl” (meaning plump fruit).

Native to South America, the tomato or Solanum lycopersicum is a member of the nightshade family of foods and plants, which include some 2,800 species of plants. They all contain, in various volumes as defense mechanisms, bitter-tasting alkaloids, a group of substances that can impact and compromise nerve-muscle, digestive and joint function in humans and animals.

tagine kefta

Tomatoes, capsicums (chilis and peppers), eggplant and potatoes are all members of the nightshade family. As these foods contain very low levels of alkaloids, they are safe to eat (please take note: green and sprout potatoes are often high in alkaloids which is why they should not be eaten). Tobacco is another member of the nightshade family and another member belladonna (Atropa belladonna) is outright deadly.

Tomatoes spread across the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The first written reference to the tomato in European literature is credited to Pietro Andrea Mattioli an Italian botanist who wrote about the pomo d’oro or golden apple in 1544.

The cultivation of tomatoes in Spain and and Italy started around the 1540s and sometime later, around the 1590s, the British started growing it. Sometime later, the Spanish introduced tomatoes to South East Asia through their colonization of the Philippines.

Tomatoes have become a truly global ingredient. Perhaps surprisingly to some, China is the world’s largest producer of tomatoes. In 2009, the Chinese produced nearly a quarter of all the world’s tomatoes, followed by the USA and India.

With more than 7500 varieties that are commonly grown today, it is difficult to classify tomatoes in a manageable number of categories. Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish between them is to divide them into two categories based on the timing of their fruit production.

Determinate tomato types bears their full crop at once and top off at a specific height. Large commercial growers who benefit from picking an entire field all at once prefer these types of tomatoes. Home growers would have to preserve these tomatoes.

Indeterminate tomato varieties are, perhaps, better suited for home growers and small scale sellers looking for fresh tomatoes for a longer period. These varieties never top off and will continue producing fruit until the plant is killed, usually by frost. Semideterminate or vigorous determinate varieties top off like their determinate counterparts, but produce a second crop immediately thereafter.

Most tomato varieties today are hybrids favoured for their higher yields rather than flavour.

With the ever-increasing emphasis on organic produce heirloom tomatoes have become popular. Heirloom tomatoes are known and sought for their intense flavours and unusual, bright colours.

Whereas nearly all common, commercial varieties are red, heirloom varieties produce fruits of many unusual colours such as green, pink, yellow, orange, brown, ivory, white and purple. Special varieties such as the Green Zebra have stripes, the Fuzzy Peach has a fuzzy skin and the Hillbilly has multiple colours.

These varieties are indeterminate varieties and are self-pollinators. For a variety to be considered heirloom, it must have bred true for at least forty years. Producers looking for heirloom varieties will have to order their seeds from special seed-banks or heirloom producers.

The sweet-tart tasting tomato has a relatively low sugar content  (similar to that of cabbage and brussel sprouts) compared to other fruits and an unusually high amount of savoury glutamic acid, and aromatic sulphur compounds. The latter two flavour compounds are more common in meats than fruits, and as a result, makes the tomato an ideal complement for meats. Therefore, the practice to serve tomatoes as part of the savoury course during a meal, and not as part of the dessert course.

Now the nagging question: is the tomato is fruit, or is it a vegetable? Ask those around you and you might get an answer not dissimilar to the famous line from J.D. Salinger’s novel, Catcher in the Rye: “I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.”

No doubt the question is about as old as the tomato itself.

Tagine Kefta

In 1893 a group of people, all with the surname Nix, (John, John W, George W, and Frank W) took the Collector of the Port of New York to court on this very question. At the time, under the Tariff Act of 1883, imported vegetables were taxed, but not imported fruits.

Legal teams presented dictionary definitions and expert witnesses provided opinions. Justice Horace Gray summarized the Supreme Court’s ruling as follows:

“The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word ‘fruit’ as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed. These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are ‘fruit,’ as distinguished from ‘vegetables,’ in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.”

What the US Supreme court ruled was that botanically, the tomato is a fruit. But under US tariff law, it should be considered a vegetable, primarily because its culinary uses are that of a vegetable rather than a fruit.

And so the low-in-sugar-savoury-tasting fruit that is the tomato became a vegetable (and the Nix clan had to pay their taxes).

As to who killed Tupac?

I have no idea.


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