By Joe Romano,
The metaphor of the melting pot is unfortunate and misleading. A more accurate analogy would be a salad bowl, for, though the salad is an entity, the lettuce can still be distinguished from the chicory, the tomatoes from the cabbage.
— Carl Neumann DeglerFood is social. It is shared by friends, family, and community. It represents one's culture and even has its own meaning. So what does it say when people don't share food, or when people disagree about how to eat? Or even when it polarizes people?
We are used to political disagreements; in fact, we can barely understand people of "that other" political party, whichever it may be. We seem to happily divide ourselves into nations and neighborhoods and draw up borders at cultural, racial, and class boundaries, too. We have to admit that somehow it comforts us to classify things — even people, sorting them like socks as alike and different. And somehow food is right there in the mix — think, for example, how many insults and slurs refer to what people eat.
We judge and classify eating habits continually. Even "crunchy," which refers to the sounds natural-food eaters make as they graze on "twigs and berries" or granola or raw vegetables, is meant as an insult. How often do people disparage "meat-eaters" while others happily denigrate someone they think eats "rabbit food?"
When GreenStar chose the food to represent us on our logo, it was with such considerations that we made our choice. We decided to avoid those "goody-goody" vegetables that people's moms forced them to eat, like kale or broccoli — as well as other foods that might be too "crunchy" for some people. Of course, pork chops didn't make the cut, because they are so heavily judged to be a "bad" food, even though pork is a cultural staple for so many Ithacans.
We wanted something that grew locally, so the apple came to mind, and even though it is so shiny and red, it also is so very ... done already. Red peppers were considered; they grow locally and, in fact, they almost made it, but the softer, rounder, friendlier tomato seemed to appeal to everyone. Tomatoes can be found on a salad, on a burger, in a salsa, a pasta dish, a curry. They are not too pricey, which was the undoing of the admittedly beautiful bunch of asparagus that was considered. Tomatoes have no strong taste or smell, a trait that eliminated garlic, the onion, and, because of their gas-producing effects, most beans.
The tomato was the local vegetable that seemed to most embody, in a single food, the first cooperative principle, of voluntary and open membership; it seemed to say that everyone is welcome, because it was welcome everywhere, from street carts to haute cuisine, from Chicago deep-dish pizza to Chinese tomato eggs, from truckstop to co-op.
But of course, tomatoes are not welcome everywhere, because for every food, battle lines can be drawn.
The Aztecs were the first to cultivate and eat tomatoes, which are native to South America, and after the invading Spanish conquistadors came and destroyed the Aztec civilization, they sent seeds of the delicious tomatoes back to Europe where they were highly suspect as a likely poison.
Well-off European people were certain that tomatoes were poisonous and only used them as decorative plants. There was some logic to the idea; tomatoes do have deadly nightshade relatives like belladonna.
For those who dared to eat them, the acids in tomatoes caused the pewter dishes of the rich to leach lead, which did indeed poison people. The poorer Europeans, especially Italians, who ate from wooden dishes and plates, welcomed tomatoes into their cuisine, which is why many of the best tomato dishes are rustic ones.
It wasn't until 1820 that an American proved conclusively that tomatoes were non-poisonous. He stood on the steps of a courthouse in Salem, New Jersey and ate an entire basket of tomatoes. He attracted over 2,000 people, who were mostly waiting to watch him die. Women passed out from fear, and the firemen's band even played a mournful dirge. Needless to say, he survived, as did the tomato.
Still, it has its detractors.
For example, a follower of the Blood Type Diet would say those with blood type B should avoid tomatoes like the plague. According to macrobiotic theory, they produce extreme "expansive" effects, which can weaken the bones, joints, teeth, gums, and all body organs.
If you have joint pain or arthritis, forget about tomatoes and nightshades. It's that simple.
With all these objections one might conclude that tomatoes are best left uneaten ... it's just that they're so good for you.
Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a strong antioxidant that helps fight some cancers. Prostate cancer is by far the best-researched type of cancer in relationship to tomatoes. It is clear that tomatoes lower the risk of prostate cancer. Another key tomato nutrient in prostate cancer prevention is alpha-tomatine, a phytonutrient that retards the growth of developing prostate cancer cells and kills those that have already been fully formed.
There are more recent findings that indicate the tomato may protect against male infertility, osteoporosis, lung cancer, skin cancer, eye disease, and breast and endometrial cancers. It may even remove varicose veins!
Tomatoes are linked to heart health, too, and have been shown to help lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Tomato extracts have been shown to help prevent unwanted clumping of platelet cells, lowering risk of heart problems like atherosclerosis. Researchers are beginning to identify some of the more unusual phytonutrients in tomatoes, making it likely that soon they'll get credit for preventing even more illnesses.
Then there is the battle over whether tomatoes are a fruit or a vegetable. In 1887, this one went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was decided in the case of Nix v. Hedden that while it was recognized botanically as a berry, because it is eaten with dinner, it is, legally, a vegetable for taxation purposes. More recently, it was controversially decided that tomato catsup constitutes a vegetable serving in an American school lunch.
People can't even manage to agree on a pronunciation -— as the great Gershwin song says, "You say to-MAY-to, I say to-MAH-to."
All this is true of almost any food we can name — pick one and see how many different points of view you can find about it. Come to the Co-op and strike up conversations about different types of food and see how many diverging opinions you can hear.
Maybe our food isn't supposed to go into a melting pot and come out some singular way. At every point in the history of the tomato, the dominant culture had something important they could have learned from those they had marginalized. Maybe, if the members of GreenStar continue to invite in as many different cultural, culinary, and contentious opinions as we can, we can make an incredible co-op salad, where all the members of our community can be represented as distinct flavors.
We don't always have to throw tomatoes at one another because we differ. We can throw them like the participants in La Tomatina, a wild community tomato fight in Buñol, Spain, where annually the 40,000 residents throw 250,000 pounds of tomatoes at one another in a single hour, just for fun — and to bond as a community where all are truly welcome to bathe together in the juice of half a million to-MAH-toes.
New in Produce
|Local Produce Rolls Deep This Month|
If you're looking to keep your veggie drawer filled with local bounty, this is your month. Fruit, veggies, herbs — it's all here.
September brings the anniversary of Brazil's declaration of independence after centuries of Portuguese rule, the birthdays of legendary boxer "Rocky" Marciano, writer Truman Capote, and American revolutionary Samuel Adams ("I'll have a Samuel Jackson"), and the autumnal equinox. Summer's over ... how short it was. While I will lament the end of summer until it returns again, we can at the very least look forward to the rich and vibrant local harvest that continues on through this most comfortable of months. Stick and Stone Farm brings us delicious heirlooms tomatoes, green beans, and three kales: Red Russian, dino, and curly. We've got local apples — Sansa, Cox Orange Pippin, Pink Pearl, and more; and plums — Castelton, Long John, Fortune — from Black Diamond Farm; plus more veggies from Blue Heron Farm — broccoli, celery, cilantro, garlic, red potatoes, and tomatoes. Here comes fall, "que sera sera."