The Tomato in All its Variety

To most people, a tomato is a tomato. If any differences are noted, they’re usually those that are most obvious. Tomatoes, people say, are either large or cherry-sized, round or plum-shaped, and either bought at the grocery store, in which case they are awful… or grown in a friend’s garden, in which case they are wonderful.

Gardeners who grow their own will probably make a few more distinctions, knowing when their tomatoes will ripen on the vine – early late, or midseason – and whether they’re the old-fashioned open pollinated types or one of the newer hybrids.

For the gardener or the connoisseur who wants to branch out, there is a good deal more to consider. There are real, noticeable differences between one variety of tomato and another, and hundreds upon hundreds of varieties are sold, no two of them alike. Natural genetic mutations and scientific crossbreeding have brought forth amazing transformations of the oversized berry the Aztecs called tomatl more than four centuries ago. Some tomatoes aren’t red: Many are rose pink, some are brilliant yellow, and a few have hardly any color at all. Some are tailor-made for Tucson, others grow well in the humidity of New Orleans or the cool summers of Newfoundland. Some tomato plants are neat little bushes that support themselves, while others run rampant through the garden or outgrow the stakes to which they’re tied.

From a gastronomic standpoint, a tomato is most decidedly not just a tomato, especially as the American palate becomes more sophisticated and subtle distinctions among varieties of foodstuffs, from cheeses to wines to vegetables, are recognized and appreciated. Tomatoes should be enjoyed in the same way. The difference between the taste of a Big Boy and a Tiny Tim may not be as great, by any stretch of the imagination, as that between Gouda and provolone or Pinot Noir and Chardonnay –  but there is indeed a difference, even if it is highly unlikely that a precise vocabulary will ever exist for tomato taste as it does for wine. Some varieties are sharp, even biting, in flavor; others are almost sugary enough to quality as desserts; some are subtly aromatic, while others can only be described as bland. The tomato’s taste, a combination of the sugars, acids, and volatile oils that form slowly in the fruit as it ripens on the vine, is as varied as its color, its size, and its growth habit.

 — Pages 21–22, The Total Tomato (Harper & Row, 1985)

The Wolf Peach Changes Names

In his groundbreaking Species Plantarum (1753), the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus gave Latin, or scientific, names to virtually every plant known at the time. Linnaeus called the recently introduced tomato Lycopersicon (wolf peach), perhaps because he thought the fruit looked as inviting as the peach but was unfit for human consumption. Why? Because it was identified as part of the Solanaceae (nightsahde) family, meaning it counted belladonna, a.k.a. deadly nightshade, among its kin. The tomato’s modern scientific name – genus first, species second– is Lycopersicon esculentum: “edible wolf peach.”

By way of a few detours, the tomato’s common English name comes from the seventeenth-century Spanish word tomate, which the Conquistadores had taken from the Aztec name for the fruit: tomatl. In the 1700s the final vowel changed and the name became tomato, probably in phonetic mimicry of the potato, the fruit’s Solanaceous cousin.

For reasons unknown, the form tomata became common in the 1800s. Charles Dickens referred to the fruits as such in The Pickwick Papers, and Thomas Jefferson (who, in his adventurous way, grew and ate them long before they were accepted by his countrymen) called them tomatas in his diaries. The wandering final “o” returned to the word in the late nineteenth century, and tomato settled into common usage once and for all.

 — Page 5, The Total Tomato (Harper & Row, 1985)