Our History Matters: An homage to the tomato, one of Manatee’s leading industries

With Valentine’s Day cards still displayed on the mantle and some chocolate still left in the heart-shaped box, it seems like the perfect time to talk about the Love Apple — which is an old-fashioned term for a tomato.

Being that tomatoes are Manatee County’s top crop, it only seems fitting that we learn a bit more about this delicious commodity.

American gardeners love tomatoes too. They are by far the most popular home-garden crop — grown by 86 percent of those with food gardens, according to the National Gardening Association.

Where did the tomato originate? Perhaps it evolved from a prehistoric plant — it is not exactly known. But those responsible for the domestication of the plant were the Mayan and Aztec cultures.

The large tomatoes that we slice for sandwiches were named xitomatl, or large tomatl. The Aztecs used them for food in 500 BC.

From that point on, the tomato’s use as a food slowly spread.

The Spanish brought tomatoes back from Mexico in the 1500s and were used regularly as food and in the 17th and 18th centuries, and their popularity spread throughout Europe and into Asia.

McClure John - tomatoes.jpg
John McClure came to Manatee County from Virginia in the 1920s to work as an agricultural extension agent. He and his son, Dan, began Palmetto’s West Coast Tomato in the 1940s. West Coast Tomato/McClure Family Farms continues to operate today. Provided photo

The tomato was well received in Italy, where it was called pomo doro, or golden apple, which suggests that yellow tomatoes were first most available.

Italian tomatoes were also known as pomi dei Moro, or Moors’ apples, which legend says was misinterpreted by a Frenchman as pomme d’amour, or love apple.

There was widespread lore that claimed the tomato was an aphrodisiac, which could have also led to its nickname of love apple.

But it wasn’t until the 1800s that the popularity of the tomato took off. Italians used red tomatoes prolifically and immigration brought the tomato to the U.S.

Because there is a botanical relationship between the tomato and the poisonous plant nightshade, Americans believed that eating tomatoes was dangerous to one’s health.

But in 1820, Robert Gibbon Johnson, a prominent citizen of Salem, New Jersey, grew tomatoes in his garden from seeds he obtained from South America. He planned to publicly consume these home-grown tomatoes and this created quite a sensation.

The story claims that hundreds of onlookers traveled from far and wide to witness this daring, remarkable event. When Johnson ate the tomato, some onlookers fainted — though Johnson had no ill effects at all and lived to the ripe old age of 79.

This event is believed to be the onset of the tomato industry in America.

One of life’s mysteries is whether the tomato is a fruit or vegetable. By definition, a fruit is a seed-bearing structure that develops from the ovary of a flowering plant, whereas vegetables are all other plant parts, such as roots, leaves and stems.

Therefore, a tomato is a fruit as are many other foods we commonly think of as vegetables.

There is even a category of fruit-vegetable, but that’s another article.

Many folks believe that if it has seeds, it’s a fruit; if it is sweet, it’s a fruit.

Neither of these is correct as vegetables also have seeds and tomatoes would not be considered sweet. But in the kitchen, a tomato is almost always treated as a vegetable.

In fact, in 1893, the United States Supreme Court ruled, for the purpose of levying a tariff, that the tomato is a vegetable.

In its history, the tomato has been classified as a poisonous plant, a love potion that arouses desire, a tax-avoiding fruit and a taxable vegetable. But when all is said and done, the tomato is one of the most popular fruits/vegetables in America.

According to Florida Department of Agriculture’s most recent statistical reports, Manatee County ranks No. 1 in Florida for tomato acreage with 45 percent of the tomato fields in the state. Florida tomatoes make up 70 percent of all fresh tomatoes in the U.S.

So slice them up anyway you please and take some advice from the Florida Tomato Committee: Always store your tomatoes stem end up and Florida tomatoes taste great when you don’t refrigerate.

You can learn about Manatee County’s tomato industry at the Manatee County Agricultural Museum. For address and operating hours, visit manateecountyagmuseum.com or call 941-721-2034.

Diane Ingram is the supervisor of the Manatee County Agricultural Museum. Our History Matters is an occasional series published in the Bradenton Herald.

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