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In Praise of Tomatoes

August 10, 2013

 Last Saturday when Clare and I were returning from our family vacation at Pawleys Island, we stopped for lunch at Thomas Café, one of our favorite eateries in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Clare ordered shrimp and grits while I selected flounder. Both plates were served with a side of fried green tomatoes.

A life-long devotee of this Southern delicacy, I searched high and low for unripe tomatoes during the week at Pawleys. This year, though, they were not to be found at any roadside stands. In hot weather, even tomatoes that are picked green in the early morning soon start turning pink. Good fried tomatoes require the use of bright green fruit that is as firm as a potato. We did enjoy delicious red tomatoes, however, served in various ways. Some folks swear by tomato pie. Others prefer the summer delight in salads of many varieties.

My specialty is Neely Soggy Tomato Sandwiches, the sandwich of choice at the annual Neely Family Fourth of July Picnic. In our home we always enjoy this favorite kitchen sink sandwich while tomatoes are in season.

2 vine-ripe tomatoes

Duke’s Real Mayonnaise

6 slices of white bread

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

•           Take six slices of white bread. Don’t use anything that is good for you – just plain ole white sandwich bread.

•           Slather Duke’s Real Mayonnaise heavily on all six slices. Only use Duke’s. Use about twice as much mayonnaise as you ordinarily would.

•           Grind fresh black pepper on all six pieces of bread.

•           Stack thinly-sliced, vine-ripe tomatoes three layers deep on three pieces of the bread.

•           Salt the tomato slices.

•           Mash – not lightly press – the remaining three pieces of bread, mayonnaise side down, on top of the tomatoes.

•           Turn the sandwiches over and mash again.

•           Cut the three sandwiches in half. Let them come to room temperature.

•           Stand over the kitchen sink to enjoy these juicy sandwiches.

Until a hundred years ago some people thought the tasty red treat was poisonous. Long before it was considered fit to eat, it was grown exclusively as an ornamental garden plant. The mistaken idea that tomatoes were poisonous probably arose because they belong to a strange plant family. A nightshade plant, from the Latin word Solanum, it 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 sixteenth century. The Pueblo people believed that those who ate tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination.

Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century introduced the tomato to European culture. Italians were the first Europeans to grow and 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-eighteenth century, tomatoes were cultivated on numerous 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 now the most common garden vegetable in our country.  Along with zucchini squash, tomatoes have a reputation for out-producing 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’s Epcot Center can view the largest tomato plant in the world. A Guinness World Record holder, the plant grows more than 32,000 golf ball-sized tomatoes, having a total weight of 1,151.84 pounds. The harvested tomatoes are served at Walt Disney World restaurants.

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

Although the tomato is technically a fruit, a member of the berry group, it is also considered a vegetable. In fact, it is the state vegetable of New Jersey and Arkansas. Health experts claim that we need five to ten 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 am often asked, “Preacher, do you have a vegetable garden?”

“No, I don’t,” I explain. “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 whom to thank.  At other times, these gifts are left anonymously on our doorstep. 

Tomatoes are my special favorite.  Several years ago I wrote these lines 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
           © August 2013
 
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