Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Tomato Conundrum

For some reason I have been thinking a lot about tomatoes as of late. I have no idea why, other than to say that this is a food item that poses several philosophical conundrums, which I have recently been contemplating.

The most obvious question concerning the tomato is whether it is a fruit or a vegetable. This is a question that has been plaguing me since well before I could even spell the word “tomato,” several months ago. Everybody thinks they know the answer to this question and strangely, everyone is correct. If you think a tomato is a fruit, you are correct. If you think a tomato is a vegetable, you are correct. You probably think I’m being a wise guy, since that’s my modus operandi, but in this case, I speak the truth.

Botanically speaking the tomato is a fruit, since it grows from the flowering part of a plant and has seeds, and you would think the story ends right there, but such is not the case. The unbelievable truth is (and yes, in a moment when I reveal this, you will find it unbelievable, but trust me, it’s true) in 1893 the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS, as it’s now annoyingly called) declared the tomato a vegetable.  Let me restate this without my superfluous parenthetical statements, so there’s no ambiguity: In 1893 the Supreme Court declared the tomato a vegetable. I kid you not—Nix v. Hedden, if you want to look it up.

While legally the tomato may be a vegetable, I have noted a certain irony in the number of popular tomato varieties that are named after fruits. There are plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and grape tomatoes. I sort of like the idea of rubbing the Supreme Court’s noses in the tomato controversy by naming the various types of their so called “vegetables” after fruits. I think we should rename Roma tomatoes, nectarine tomatoes, and start calling beefsteak tomatoes, banana tomatoes. That’ll show our Supreme Court justices a thing or two! (Of course, none of our current justices had anything to do with that decision, and the last living justice who did—George Shiras, Jr.—passed away in 1924, but that’s beside the point.)

Beyond the nomenclature issues surrounding tomatoes is the more practical concern of how to eat them. Raw or cooked?  Clearly raw tomatoes, chopped into salads, sliced onto sandwiches, or, in the case of cherry or grape tomatoes, dipped into ranch dressing and eaten whole, are quite popular. (Interestingly, you rarely see anyone holding a large tomato in their hand and taking a bite out of it like it’s an apple, so maybe the Supreme Court wasn’t totally off its rocker after all.) But cooked tomatoes certainly have their place as well, especially when sautéed and placed lovingly into a pasta dish. Personally, my favorite use of a tomato is when it is turned into a paste, seasoned with oregano, garlic, and olive oil, spread across a 16-inch round dough, topped with mozzarella cheese, and placed into a hot oven for about 10 to 15 minutes. But that’s just me.

The final tomato conundrum I’d like to address is their historic use as projectiles aimed at vaudevillian performers of yesteryear. Despite the fact that when I used to do improv many years ago I had more than my fair share of dud performances, I never had a tomato hurled at me. And I’ve never seen a tomato hurled at anyone else in a live setting. Yet I’ve certainly seen many movies—generally from the 30s and 40s—that depicted this odd dynamic. Comedian tells a joke that doesn’t go over—tomato in the face. Singer hits a sour note—tomato in the face. Dancer seems uncoordinated—tomato in the face. Did this kind of thing really happen in theaters at one time? Presumably so, otherwise it would not have been so ubiquitous in films during the golden era.

It seems odd to me that people would bring tomatoes with them to the theater. If you brought a tomato with you, the assumption would be that you are intentionally going to a show in which you expect the performers will be bad. But what happened if the performers turned out to be good? Would the audience member give the tomato to the performer as a gift after the show as if to say, “Had you not entertained me I would have thrown this at your face, but here, eat it instead—it’s delicious?” A very curious practice indeed, although I do think it should be brought back today at political stump speeches.

Thank you for letting me get my tomato angst off my chest. If you have any other concerns about this fruit (I’m sorry—vegetable—please don’t turn me in to the authorities) feel free to let me know in the comments section below or via registered mail.