Tomatoes love the sun. It’s in our genes. We once grew wild in Peru and Ecuador, in blazing colours varieties and flavours. The Spanish conquistadors came in the 16th century and were knocked out by our gorgeous colour, appealing shape and unique fragrance. They uprooted us, took us to their ships, and we began an adventure that made us world-class cuisine stars. We bombed in Spain. So they took us to Morocco and billed us as pomi di mori or Moorish apples. We opened in Naples as pomodori, Golden apples. In France, we brought the house down as pommes d’amour, love apples, and were given aphrodisiac status. They pooh-poohed us in the British Isles. Our family cousins, Belladonna, deadly nightshade, are well known poisons. Only our leaves are toxic. Still they admitted we were gorgeous and used us to decorate arbours. By the 19th century, we were superstars, the core of Mediterranean cuisine.
But when we immigrated to America we found so much prejudice: we were said to cause cancer, and that eating our seeds meant instant appendicitis. Thanks to clever marketing, in the 1900s we became America’s media darling. “Give a lift to a tomato. you expect her to be nice, don’t you?” A line from the 1945 classic film, Detour. Call woman at tomato today and she’ll probably spit in your eye. By the ‘50s, North America is in love with us. Hollywood is incensed. The 1978 movie, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes becomes a cult classic. You Say Tomato and I Say Tomahto is a Hit Parade favourite.
But distribution is difficult. By the time we reach the market we are not so firm fleshed. Some years later, Yankee know-how finds a way. The big growers pick us while we’re still green, expose us to gas, which turns us pinky red, and ship us to wintry climates. Oh, the humiliation at the market compared to our locally grown, lusciously pedigreed sisters: vine-ripened, hydroponic, hothouse, we are tasteless, grainy and hard. No-name tomatoes, cheaply priced. But they buy us anyway, knowing that a few days on a sunny windowsill will brighten our disposition and our flavour. Warmth is essential to our aroma, we cringe in the fridge. We fade fast, sliced or diced in advance and after 20 minutes our delicate flavour takes a hike.
Chef’s dream up new ways of presenting us to our adoring fans. The New York Times and gourmet magazines sing the praises of Montreal Chef Normand LePrise and his tomato-y creations. Celebrities flock to his restaurant Toque, and often request his special tomato dishes.
Good & Simple Tomato Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
1 small onion minced
1 clove (or more) garlic crushed
pinch of chilli pepper flakes
1 large can San Marzano or Roma tomatoes
½ dozen (or more) fresh basil leaves, torn.
Start cooking pasta.
In a large pot, pour olive oil to heat on medium for few minutes, then add onion.
After a few minutes, add garlic – don’t let it brown. Add chili flakes. Mush tomatoes and liquid with a wooden spoon and add to pot. Turn down heat, and let simmer for about five minutes, then add the basil.
Drain pasta. Add sauce. Enjoy.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.