Cover image for The great tomato book
The great tomato book
Buff, Sheila.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Short Hills, NJ : Burford Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
166 pages ; 23 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Newstead Library SB349 .B84 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
Angola Public Library SB349 .B84 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
Elma Library SB349 .B84 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
Kenmore Library SB349 .B84 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
Orchard Park Library SB349 .B84 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
Audubon Library SB349 .B84 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Nothing gets gardeners going like tomatoes -- by far the most popular home garden vegetable. Here is the book to satisfy their all-consuming passion for the perfect tomato. With expert tips on growing the biggest, sweetest, tomatoes possible, the book also includes tomato history and lore, heirloom varieties, tomato science and research, tomato festivals, tomato trivia, a wealth of recipes -- an ultimate guide for the 'tomatomaniac'.

Author Notes

Sheila Buff is a freelance writer specializing in natural history, gardening, & the outdoors. She is the author of "The Great Tomato Book", "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Birdwatching", "The Birder's Sourcebook", "The Birdfeeder's Handbook", & many other titles. She lives & gardens on five acres in Milan, New York,

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Here is everything gardeners need to know about tomatoes. Buff begins with a history of this popular fruit--or vegetable, if you prefer--and then discusses its many varieties. The author, a garden and nature writer, offers instructions on growing (including watering, mulching, staking, pruning, fertilizing), disease and pest control, and harvesting and preserving. Twenty-three recipes are presented; also included are tomato trivia and black-and-white and color photographs. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Readers can ponder America's favorite garden produce in all its pomp and plumpness here. From the tomato's sophisticated Aztec beginnings (more than 500 years ago) to its impressive invasion of Europe (except in England where, in a 1592 article, herbalist John Gerard described the tomato as being "of a ranke and stinking savour" before it became known as the "love apple"), Buff moves quickly into the agribusiness behind the contemporary tomato. Descriptions of the top 10 producing states aside, the bulk of the text covers all the basics of growing tomatoes: starting seeds, cultural and pest problems, diseases and hybrid vs. heirloom varieties. But gardeners of all ilks will stay with the book for its entertaining lore and facts that Buff sets straight. She tells us how the botanically correct "fruit" became a "vegetable" (the result of a Supreme Court case) and about the "space tomatoes" whose seeds hitchhiked aboard the Challenger and spent six years in orbit before they were planted on Earth, and she relates a corrective piece on the consistently misquoted Gershwin songÄ"You say Tomayto, I say to-mah-to." Recipes from the now familiar book and movie Fried Green Tomatoes to Green Tomato Chutney and Fresh Tomato Pie round out this fast-paced compendium. A hefty list of seed sources includes Big Tomato Contests, which only proves the author's earlier point: "Something about tomatoes make gardeners get a little strange." Photos not seen by PW. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The American Tomato Chances are good you ate something tomato today. Fresh, in a sauce or soup, on pizza, as ketchup--tomatoes pervade American cuisine, to the point that the average individual eats 18 pounds of fresh tomatoes and 70 pounds of processed tomatoes in a year. How a greenish, marble-sized fruit from Peru came to be an indispensable part of backyard gardening and American cooking is a complicated, fascinating story.     The first tomatoes grew wild in the hot, dry, Andean region of western South America--an area that is now divided among Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile. The Incas and other natives of the region were extremely sophisticated farmers, but they seem to have ignored the hardy wild tomato as a cultivated crop. There's no evidence that they ate tomatoes, and there isn't even a word for the plant in the native languages of the region.     Millennia ago, the wild tomato made its way north into Central America, perhaps as seeds carried by birds. The Aztecs and other natives here were also extremely sophisticated farmers. They not only readily adopted the tomato but also cultivated it assiduously and bred a number of varieties with different colors and shapes. The difference in attitude toward the original weedy plant may be because the Aztecs were already fond of a native fruit called the tomatl . These tart, greenish orbs covered with a thin, papery husk are now called tomatillos; they remain an important ingredient in Mexican cooking. The Aztecs called the new fruit xitomatl, or big tomatl .     The Aztecs were certainly growing tomatoes as an important part of their diet by the time Hernán Cortés conquered them in 1519. The many Spanish conquistadors, priests, and administrators who followed were very interested in the native foods. Finding the tomate, as they called it, to be edible and enjoyable, they spread the plant across their empire, introducing it in the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Europe, and reintroducing it to Peru as a cultivated crop.     By the 1540s, tomatoes were being grown in Europe, probably more as curiosities than as crops. The first written European reference to them dates to 1544 in an herbal by the Italian botanist Pietro Mattioli. He described the new fruits as resembling mala aurea, or "golden apples," and classified them in the mandrake family. Ten years later, in a revised edition of his herbal, Mattioli translated mala aurea into vernacular Italian and called them pomi d'ori, which survives in modern Italian as pomidoro .     Almost simultaneously, the tomato was being called poma amoris, or "love apple," by other herbalists. The association probably comes from the tomato's relative the mandrake, whose root resembles entwined lovers and was traditionally considered an aphrodisiac. Some, however, seem to have associated the tomato with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Actually, almost any New World food at the time was rumored to be an aphrodisiac. Hot chocolate was thought to be so stimulating that monks were forbidden from drinking it. In Shakespeare's time, potatoes were a novelty food considered arousing. That's why Falstaff said, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, "Let the sky rain potatoes ... let there be a tempest of provocations, I will shelter me here." Is it surprising, then, that a fruit as exotic, colorful, tender, full of seeds and juice, and delicious as the tomato would be considered highly erotic?     On the other hand, the love apple idea may come from the words pomi de Moro, or "Moor's apple," another early name for the tomato in Italy. This designation supposedly comes from the hazy notion that Moors (at that time almost a generic word for denizens of the western Mediterranean region, including Spain) brought tomatoes with them when they put in at Italian ports. The words were misinterpreted by the French as pomme d'amour, or "love apple." This somewhat roundabout derivation is probably a folk etymology--it's far too artfully contrived to be real.     Botanically, everybody was on the right track, even if they were creating confusion at the same time. The tomato is indeed related to the mandrake plant. Tomatoes, potatoes, petunias, tobacco, eggplants, mandrake, and the many varieties of nightshade are all members of the large and very diverse botanical superfamily known as Solanaceae. Within this family, tomatoes belong to the genus Lycopersicon, which literally means "wolf peach." This peculiar name alludes to a medieval remedy, a medicinal yellow liquid derived from an entirely different plant found in North Africa. European herbalists knew of the highly prized liquid, but they obviously had never seen the source. The name attached itself to the new plant and has stuck ever since, despite its illogic.     Within the Lycopersicon genus are nine different species, including L. esculentum --literally "edible wolf peach," or what we today call the tomato. The scientific name was first used in April 16, 1768, when it was published in Philip Miller's Garden Dictionary . Miller, the superintendent of the Chelsea Physick Garden in England, was the first to recognize that tomatoes are distinctly different from eggplants and other members of the Solanaceae family, and he was the first to place the tomato in a family of its own. Today, his contribution is recognized by the formal scientific name of the tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum P. Miller, Gard. Dict. ed. 8. N. 2. 16 April 1768.     Tomatoes were eaten in Europe as soon as they were introduced. Mattioli said in his herbal that tomatoes were fried in oil, and other early sources also mentioned ways to eat tomatoes. The earliest-known recipes for cooking tomatoes didn't appear until 1692, in a cookbook published in Naples, but obviously tomatoes were being widely eaten in Italy, Spain, and Portugal well before then.     Sadly, in England the tomato suffered from the bad opinion of the influential herbalist John Gerard. In his herbal, published in 1592, he said the tomato came from Italy, which of course made it immediately suspect. He also said it was poisonous, writing that "the whole plant is of a ranke and stinking savour." In fairness to Gerard, the leaves and stems of tomatoes are indeed poisonous--it's not so far-fetched to think the fruit is as well. Gerard may also have heard how Sir Walter Raleigh presented Queen Elizabeth with some potato plants from the New World. The queen's cook threw away the roots, boiled the poisonous greens, and served them. Potatoes were then banned from the royal table. It would not be surprising if the related tomato came under similar deep suspicion. For a long time in England, the tomato remained a greenhouse ornamental said to have some medicinal uses but to be unwholesome as a food.     Even so, tomatoes gradually gained a foothold in England. They're mentioned in passing as a food in various sources, but the first recipe using "love apples" only appeared in 1758, in The Art of Cookery, by Hannah Glasse. This early cookbook was very popular and went through innumerable editions over the next several decades. Tomatoes became increasingly popular in Britain after that; they were firmly established in the cuisine by the 1780s.     The tomato came to the North American colonies by a number of circuitous routes. The first written reference to tomatoes mentioned them growing in what is now South Carolina in the 1680s. They may have gotten there via Spanish settlements farther south, in what are now Georgia and Florida, or via European settlers who brought the seeds with them from England or France. It's also possible that the tomato arrived via trade with the various Caribbean islands, where tomatoes were widely cultivated.     We'll never know for sure, of course. We do know that gardeners were regularly and enthusiastically growing tomatoes in South Carolina by the 1760s. Handwritten recipes using tomatoes start to turn up around the same time. Tomato cultivation gradually spread north, reaching the Philadelphia area and New York by the late 1790s. In Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and other points west, tomatoes were widely grown by the early 1800s. By the 1820s, tomatoes were being widely grown in New England as well.     Tomato seeds were for sale in Philadelphia by 1800. Other nursery growers soon followed, and tomato seeds were readily available across the country by 1830. By 1835, at least fourteen varieties were available and serious breeding efforts were under way. By the 1850s, a smooth-skinned, solid variety called `Trophy' had been developed by Dr. Hand of Baltimore County and soon became very widespread. By 1863, Fearing Burr Jr. had described twenty-four varieties in his book The Field and Garden Vegetables of America .     A new and very popular variety called `Paragon' was developed by Alexander Livingston (1821-1898) of Ohio in the late 1860s. `Paragon' is considered the first truly commercial tomato variety. Livingston went on to develop thirteen other important varieties between 1870 and 1893; the seed company he founded still exists.     Imported British cookbooks with tomato recipes were known in the American colonies from the early 1800s. The first American cookbook to include tomato recipes was Mary Randolph's Virginia House-Wife , which appeared in 1824. Twelve recipes called for tomatoes, including ketchup, stewed tomatoes, and that favorite southern dish even today, okra and tomatoes. (A facsimile edition of this fascinating work is available from the University of South Carolina Press.) The next cookbook with tomato recipes was Lydia Maria Child's The Frugal Housewife, published in Boston in 1829. Another book, N. K. M. Lee's The Cook's Own Book, published in 1832, had twelve tomato recipes. Clearly, tomatoes were a common food item by the 1830s, but it took one more cookbook to establish them firmly on the American table. In 1837, Eliza Leslie published her enormously popular and influential Directions for Cookery . The first edition contained thirteen tomato recipes, while later editions, of which there were many, added another fifteen or so.     After Leslie, recipes for tomato dishes were found everywhere--in cookbooks, in newspapers, and in the ladies' magazines and farm journals that began to proliferate after the introduction of cheap paper and steam-powered printing presses in the 1840s. In 1861, the editors of the immensely popular Godey's Lady's Book told their readers that the tomato was a "delicious and wholesome vegetable." Even so, they recommended cooking tomatoes for at least three hours; anything less, they warned, would produce "a sour porridge."     The suspicion that tomatoes were poisonous lingered in some rural pockets, as did the belief that the fruits were edible but bad for the health. Most Americans, however, were more enlightened and happily ate tomatoes raw, cooked, and in ketchup. Thomas Jefferson wrote about tomato plantings in Virginia as early as 1782. While he was president, Jefferson was delighted to learn that fresh tomatoes were sold in Washington; in 1809, he began growing them himself at Monticello.     One of the most durable and untrue legends in American culinary history says that in 1820, Robert Gibbon Johnson dramatically proved to the nation that tomatoes were not poisonous by publicly eating one on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey. His bold feat supposedly launched the American tomato industry. As Andrew Smith exhaustively documented in his authoritative book The Tomato in America, there's barely a shred of truth to the story. That hasn't kept it from being widely repeated, of course, even in scholarly articles. The town of Salem holds an annual Robert Gibbon Johnson Day that reenacts the historic nonevent, which the media dutifully reports without mentioning the total lack of evidence for it. As Smith pointed out, there are hundreds of stories that attribute the introduction of the tomato to a particular individual.     Still, the Robert Gibbon Johnson story does have an interesting kernel of truth. Johnson was an active member of the Salem County Agricultural Society, and he did recognize that tomatoes were a valuable agricultural commodity. By the late 1850s, tomatoes and tomato canning had become an important business in New Jersey. The Tomato Business Today Tomatoes in America are big business. The market falls into two categories: fresh and processing tomatoes. The line between the two is sharp--overall statistics for the total tomato industry are hard to find. Fresh Tomatoes     U.S. Department of Agriculture figures for fresh tomatoes in 1996 (the most recent year available as this book goes to press) show that 122,830 acres of tomatoes were planted, of which 118,760 were harvested. (The missing acres were presumably lost to various farming disasters.) The yield per acre was 26,000 pounds; the total production that year was 3,085,400,000, or nearly 3.1 billion, pounds. The total crop value was close to $880 million. (By way of comparison, the value of the head lettuce crop that year was about $980 million.) In all, Americans spend more than $2.5 billion annually on fresh tomatoes. In popularity at the supermarket, fresh tomatoes rank third, just behind potatoes and lettuce.     Florida leads the nation in fresh tomato production, followed closely by California. As this breakdown shows, the remaining eight states among the top ten tomato producers are pitiful by comparison. Top Ten States for Fresh Tomatoes, 1996 State     Harvested Acres     Total Annual Production (pounds) Florida 39,300 11,790,000 California 33,400 9,686,000 Georgia 4,500 1,800,000 S. Carolina 3,800 1,140,000 Virginia 3,600 1,008,000 Ohio 3,300 842,000 Tennessee 3,400 731,000 New Jersey 4,100 697,000 Pennsylvania 4,400 660,000 Michigan 2,400 432,000 Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture     In the 1950s, New Jersey was much higher up on the list, with more than 50,000 acres devoted to growing tomatoes. Since then, the state has steadily lost ground to California and Florida, but many people still long for the fabled "Jersey tomato." This wasn't any particular variety, although it is often associated with `Rutgers', an all-purpose variety developed at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and introduced in 1934. `Rutgers' is a cross between `J.T.D.', an older New Jersey variety developed by the Campbell's Soup Company, and `Marglobe', an even older variety introduced in 1917 that itself was a cross between `Marvel' and `Globe'. `Rutgers' is still widely grown today, for good reason: It's round, bright red, full flavored, and disease resistant.     Since 1994, however, the term Jersey tomatoes has taken on a new meaning. The New Jersey Tomato Council, a private cooperative, has trademarked the words "The Jersey Tomato" and applies them to high-quality fresh tomatoes grown by farmers in seven counties. The tomatoes--nearly 13 million pounds of them every season--are packed at a central facility in Cedarville and shipped up and down the East Coast to restaurants and markets. Demand is high, especially among chefs. Cooperatives like this, funded almost exclusively by the farmers themselves, are a heartening development. The growers make the sort of profit that keeps them farming and not looking for real-estate deals for their land, and the public gets locally grown real tomatoes.     Starting with the first commercial tomato production between 1880 and 1900, Florida has virtually monopolized the market for fresh tomatoes in winter. This is a big market, currently worth about $650 million annually. Competition from Mexican growers has increased in recent years, enough to cut the Florida share of the winter tomato market considerably, but the state still has over eighty highly successful commercial growers.     The infamous supermarket tomato, with its thick skin, firm flesh, chunky shape, mealy texture, and major lack of taste, is a product of extensive breeding efforts at the University of California at Davis in the 1950s. The main cultivar was a variety poetically known as `VF 145'. This tomato met all the requirements: a compact plant, uniform fruits of a convenient size for machine harvesting, and good response to the ethylene in the ripening room. To this day, `VF 145' is still a leading variety in California.     (In fairness, I must point out that U.C. Davis has been the source of significant tomato research for decades, research that has led to extremely important and very positive improvements in tomato varieties and cultivation practices. I'll discuss this more in the next chapter.)     California fresh tomato growers introduced the genetically engineered `Flavr Savr' tomato in 1994 to great fanfare and controversy. Developed by Calgene, Inc., of Davis, California, `Flavr Savr' incorporated an antisense gene that shuts off the gene responsible for making ripe tomatoes get soft. The idea was to make a flavorful fresh tomato that would keep well for as long as fourteen days after harvesting.     The gene-splicing technology used in the `Flavr Savr' caused a huge public outcry. In 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave Calgene permission to begin large-scale production of the `Flavr Savr'. In 1993, Calgene took the unusual step of asking the federal Food and Drug Administration to approve the altered gene as a food additive. The FDA agreed in 1994, stating that `Flavr Savr' is as safe as tomatoes bred by conventional means. Despite some vocal opposition to bio-engineered foods, consumer sales of `Flavr Savr' tomatoes, under the brand name MacGregor (as in the farmer of the Peter Rabbit stories), started in 1995. Consumer acceptance was fairly good, even at the premium prices charged, but the production costs of the tomatoes were just too high. Sales ended in the winter of 1997 and Calgene was bought out by Monsanto (which already had a substantial minority stake) that spring. The `Flavr Savr' gene is now part of Monsanto's tomato-breeding program, which produces proprietary seeds for commercial growers.     The American fresh tomato business got a boost in 1997, when Japan finally opened its market to imported tomatoes. (Shipments from the United States and nearly every other country had been banned since 1951 because of Japanese concerns about tobacco blue mold.) The major market is the food service industry. Japanese-grown tomatoes are too soft and expensive for the expanding "Western-style" restaurants (read fast-food chains ) to use. California growers, who are closest to Japan, will be the biggest beneficiaries. Japan already buys over three billion dollars a year in food and agricultural products from California, making it the state's biggest export market.     Fresh tomato exports are an important and growing part of overall sales. In 1989, California exported over two million 25-pound cartons of tomatoes, or almost 6 percent of the state's production. In 1997, that number had jumped to over five million cartons, or over 12 percent of all California fresh tomatoes. Adding fresh tomatoes to the export mix to Japan should increase the percentage noticeably over the next few years. Processing Tomatoes     The crop yields for processing tomatoes are so huge I have trouble grasping them--they're like geological time or astronomical distances. These are the tomatoes that end up in cans and bottles as tomato sauce, puree, paste, soup, ketchup, salsa, and every other conceivable incarnation, including something called tomato flour. The planted acreage in 1996 was 345,370, of which 339,120 were harvested. The yield per acre was 33.6 tons; the total production was 11,409,000 tons, or a mind-bending 22,818,000,000 pounds (it might be easier to conceive of this as 22.82 billion pounds). The total crop value, however, was somewhat less than the value of the fresh tomatoes that year: $724 million.     When it comes to processing tomatoes, California has the clear lead over every other state in the country and every other country in the world. In 1996, California growers harvested 313,000 acres, which yielded 21,322,000,000 pounds (more conveniently, 21.3 billion pounds). More than one-third of the California crop is produced in the ideal climate of the Sacramento Valley. Tomato farms here are large; the typical farm is anywhere from 600 to 45,000 acres and produces tons and tons of tomatoes. Even organic growers, whose yields are generally somewhat lower, harvest 20 to 38 tons per acre. For this kind of large-scale growing, you need disease-resistant, very high-yield varieties that will produce consistent results. These are not your average backyard tomatoes. Today tomatoes grown in big commercial operations have colorful variety names like `Ferry Morse 882' and `Asgrow Brigade 5210'.     Following California in very distant second place is Ohio, with only 10,500 acres harvested and production of just 616,000,000 pounds--not even close to a billion pounds. Most of the Ohio production goes into making ketchup--Heinz has a huge factory in Fremont, Ohio.     Worldwide, even leaving California out of the picture, tomato production is massive. These numbers come from Tomato News, the international journal of the tomato industry. They're for 1996 processing tomatoes only; the figures are in metric tons (l metric ton is 2,205 pounds). International figures for fresh tomatoes seem not to exist, at least not in any meaningful sense. Top Countries for Processing Tomatoes, 1996 Country Processing Tomatoes (metric tons) Algeria  350  Argentina  284  Australia  287  Brazil  680  Bulgaria  150 Chile  854 China  610 France  285  Greece  1,311 Hungary  182  India  85  Israel  235  Italy  4,198 Japan  72  Morocco  100  New Zealand 117  Peru  150  Portugal  905  South Africa 180  Spain  1,184 Taiwan  24  Thailand  226  Tunisia  565  Turkey  1,775  Venezuela  95  Total  14,904 Source: Tomato News It's good to see that Peru, ancestral home of the tomato, still produces an impressively large amount of them. I have no idea what they do with all those tomatoes in China and Taiwan. Fruit or Vegetable? No book on tomatoes is complete without a discussion of this important question. Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits (berries, to be precise), because they develop from an ovary. According to a famous court decision, however, they're vegetables.     The protectionist Tariff Act of 1883 levied a 10 percent duty on imported vegetables. In 1886, an importer brought in a load of Caribbean-grown tomatoes to New York City and was promptly slapped with the duty. He protested, stating the well-known botanical fact that tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1893, the highest court in the land came down on the side of the vegetables. Justice Horace Gray wrote the decision, saying: Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, 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.     What does this decision tell us, other than that the august justices of the Supreme Court didn't like broccoli? That they did like the burgeoning American tomato industry and wanted to protect it, even at the expense of scientifically precise language. Specifically, they wanted to protect it against stiff competition from the Caribbean growers. It's an old story in American trade relations, one that hasn't really changed very much. Even today, tomato growers in Florida vehemently protest the slightly lowered tariffs that apply to Mexican-grown fresh tomatoes since the enactment of NAFTA in 1994. (Continues...)

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