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August 11, 2008

The Great Tomato Scare of 2008 has officially ended. The Red Menace, as some called it, was prompted by a salmonella outbreak resulting in the removal of tomatoes from grocery stores and restaurants across the United States.

Food poisoning was reported in 41 states. The Food and Drug Administration suspected that the contamination was connected to fresh salsa. Previous outbreaks of salmonella had been linked to raw tomatoes, making them the usual suspect. Now the FDA tells us the culprits might have been the jalapeno peppers in the salsa.

The fear of tomatoes is nothing new. Until a hundred years ago some people thought the delicious red treat was poisonous. Long before it was considered fit to eat, it was grown only as an ornamental garden plant. The mistaken idea that tomatoes were poisonous probably arose because they belong to a strange plant family. Nightshade plants, from the Latin Solanum, includes the Datura, mandrake, and belladonna, all considered poisonous.

Close relatives are paprika, chili pepper, potato, tobacco, and petunia. The unpleasant odor of tomato leaves and stems contributed to the idea that the fruits were unfit for food.

Tomatoes originated as wild plants in the tropical foothills of the Andes Mountains of Peru. Gradually, they were carried north into Central America. Because of the highly perishable nature of the fruit, the tomato was slow to be adopted as a cultivated  plant by Native Americans. Mayans used the fruit in their cooking. Tomatoes were cultivated in Mexico by the 16th Century. The Pueblo people believed that those who ate tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination.

Spanish explorers in the 16th Century introduced the tomato to European culture. Italians were the first Europeans to grow and to eat tomatoes. Later it was grown in English and Spanish gardens, not as food, but as a curiosity. The French gave it the name pomme d’amour; translated as love apple in English.

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in South Carolina. They may have been introduced to our area from the Caribbean. By the mid-18th century, they were cultivated on many Carolina plantations. Even then, they may have only been of ornamental interest.

Tomatoes were grown as food in New Orleans as early as 1812, no doubt because of  French influence. Thomas Jefferson learned of tomatoes in France. The progressive Virginia farmer grew them at Monticello as early as 1781.

Tomatoes are the most common garden vegetable in our country.  Along with zucchini squash, tomatoes have a reputation for outproducing the needs of the grower. In 1986, Gordon Graham of Edmond, Oklahoma grew the largest tomato on record. It weighed 7 pounds, 12 ounces.

Visitors to Walt Disney World can view the largest tomato plant in the world. Guests along the Living With the Land boat ride at Epcot can see the tomato tree. The vine, a Guinness World Record Holder, grows golf ball-sized tomatoes with a harvest of more than 32,000 tomatoes at a total weight of 1,151.84 pounds. The tomatoes are served at Walt Disney World restaurants.

Tomatoes are regarded as one of the healthiest foods in our diet, except, of course, when there is a salmonella outbreak. Rich in vitamins A and C, tomatoes contain lycopene. This chemical gives tomatoes, as well as watermelons and red grapefruit, their color. Lycopene is an antioxidant that helps reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

 Although, the tomato is technically a fruit, a member of the berry group, it is considered also to be a vegetable. In fact, it is the state vegetable of New Jersey and Arkansas. Health experts say that we need 5-10 servings of vegetables and fruits every day. At this time of year, we should all take advantage of local homegrown tomatoes to meet our daily quota.  

I was recently asked, “Preacher, do you have a vegetable garden?”

“No, I don’t,” I explained. “I have more fresh vegetables without a garden than I ever had when I planted a garden of my own.” 

Church members kindly share the bounty of their gardens with our household.  Sometimes we know who to thank.  At other times, these gifts are left anonymously on our doorstep.  Tomatoes are my special favorite.  The following is an expression of my gratitude.


God is great, God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

By His hand we all are fed.

Give us, Lord, our daily bread.


Wholegrain bread, rye, or lite,

A sourdough loaf, or just plain white.

And please, dear Lord, some Duke’s mayonnaise.

And homegrown tomatoes for these summer days.


Add lettuce, and bacon, or maybe cheese,

But especially, Lord, I ask you please,

For vine ripe tomatoes, sliced thick and round

To make the best sandwich I’ve ever found.


On days that grow weary with muggy heat,

A soggy tomato sandwich just can’t be beat.

With a tall glass of something cold to drink,

I’ll eat my lunch over the kitchen sink.


I’m grateful for corn, that good Silver Queen,

For cantaloupe, peaches, and fresh green beans,

For squash, and okra, and small red potatoes,

but nothing is better than homegrown tomatoes.


God is great, and God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

I know His kindness never ends.

When given tomatoes by special friends.


-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, July 2008   

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