The tomato is one of Chubeza’s pioneer crops, together with us in the field from Year One. Her prime position in the kitchen, the Israeli vegetable salad, and the garden made her a pivotal inclusion in the weekly fare of our boxes. Last week we gave you an inside glimpse at growing tomatoes in the fields of Chubeza. This week our focus will expand to the fascinating saga of the tomato’s historical and geographic journeys.
Let’s start with the family tree: the tomato belongs to the selenium family, along with fellow family members the eggplants, peppers, potatoes and… tobacco. Of course, there are many others in the extended family, including wild and cultivated ornamental plants totaling over 2,800 different species. The tomato is a tropical plant originating in Central America. The world’s first tomatoes probably grew in today’s Peru and Ecuador, where they were cultivated before migrating to Mexico to be raised by the Aztecs, who gave them the name tomatel. The habitants of America raised the tomato and realized its value. The Spanish were impressed by its beauty and brought it to Europe in the 16th century. Tomatoes of those times were yellow, thus the origin of its name pomodora – a golden apple in Italian, which became pomo dei Mori – the apple of the Moors, a name later corrupted by the French to become pomme d’amour – the apple of love. The Arabic name bandora probably derives from the Italian name. We will discuss the Hebrew name soon.
When the tomato was first brought to Europe, it was raised only as an ornamental plant. The women of 16th century haute couture adorned their hair with tomato blossoms for special occasions. Yet health experts of the time warned against the fruit, which they considered toxic. The golden tomato may thus have been forgotten, if not for two 18th century Italian priests who brought the red variety from South America to grow in their yard. Here, in southern Italy, red tomatoes met their first great success among the peasants. Thanks to their courage and willingness to try out many new vegetables that the aristocracy shied away from, we enjoy great vegetables today. The first mention in writing of tomato sauce was a recommendation by a Neapolitan abbot in 1778 for using this as a sauce for meat and fish (not yet pasta or pizza). However, the 19th century firmly belonged to the tomato: by then it was discovered worldwide – including via its the immigration to our country, with a little help from some French monks.
It is hard to imagine a kitchen without tomatoes, specifically the Mediterranean kitchen with its shakshuka, s’chug, Italian pasta and pizza sauces, as well as being an essential for Spanish, Provence, Greek and Turkish sea and land foods. It’s hard to believe that history mounted the tomato atop European tables only 200 years ago, and that it was completely unknown in the Western world before Columbus made his grand discovery… Even so, the tomato was not so warmly received at its initial debut, and an aura of controversy surrounds it till today. Reading about the tomato, you can find mention that it is lofty and exalted, healthy, essential and important, or that it is poisonous, harmful and even dangerous. So… where are we? Are we poisoning you with tomatoes every week, or saving your souls? Alas, the story of the tomato is neither black nor white. (It is, of course, red, yellow, purple, pink, green…)
As mentioned, the tomato belongs to the selenium family. Some of the plants in this family are in fact poisonous and pose a health danger. This poison is due to alkaloids that exist in different parts of the plant. Alkaloids are organic compounds of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, usually plant-based in origin. They are considered to have an influence on the function of nerves, muscles and the digestive system. The problematic alkaloid in the selenium family is the solanium, which gave it its name, and exists in various levels in family members. The solanium content in edible selenium plants is minute, and is reduced by 40-50% with cooking, which is why most of us can consume it without any problem. And yet, macrobiotic nutrition is very wary of the selenium family, which is considered most problematic when the vegetables are green (green tomatoes, green peppers, etc.) or raw.
On the other hand, tomatoes contain lycopene, the pigment that gives them (as well as watermelons) their red color, considered to be a hue that piques appetite and desire. Lycopene is a very potent antioxidant. Scientists claim that it is one of the “predators” of free radicals which are very active in nature (free radicals are the harmful substances that accelerate the processes of aging and disease). Lycopene is beneficial in battling various types of cancer, particularly prostate, lung and pancreatic cancer. Together with other components of the tomato, it also reduces the danger of heart disease and stroke. Lycopene’s ability to act as an antioxidant also contributes to the healthy function of eyes, to brain cognition and protection against harmful sunrays. The tomato is rich in Vitamin C, which protects against heart disease, stroke, cancer and probably cataracts and complications of diabetes.
Yehiel Mikhal Pines, who worked with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda to revive the spoken Hebrew language, translated Liebesapfel (love apple) from the German to agvaniah, from the root ע.ג.ב- “to love, desire.” The Ben-Yehuda household was not particularly pleased with the immodest agvaniah title, and thus suggested the name badura, Hebraizing the Arabic bandura. Rav Kook preferred a “pure and clean” Hebrew name for the vegetable. Prompted by the red color of the tomato, the venerable rabbi suggested admonia as an alternative. Over various decades, the agvaniah and badura co-existed, each with its own fan club. In the end, love and desire won out, and agvaniah it was.
Most of the tomatoes we know are indeed red, but the full picture boasts a colorful, wide, rich range of varieties. In most agricultural farms, a slim variety of tomatoes are grown, but there are organizations and individuals who work to uphold the heritage of the multitude of tomato varieties (as well as other plants and vegetables). See this Mandala from the French Kokopelli Foundation website (thank you, Yiftah, for the link):
Over these weeks of joyful ripe, rich red summer delights, we’re attempting to send both cherry tomatoes and regular tomatoes your way. Take a look at our Recipe Section for great ideas on preserving tomatoes: drying them, turning them into sauces, and even tomato jam.
To Mohammed, the delighted grandfather, Majdi and Ali, the proud uncles, and to the entire Aiezi family, our congratulations on the birth of your granddaughter/niece!
Wishing you all a good week,
Alon, Bat Ami, Dror, Oreen, Yochai and all the Chubeza team
WHAT’S IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: Red bell peppers/zucchini, lettuce, corn, New Zealand spinach, cucumbers/fakus, tomatoes, okra/Thai yard-long beans, butternut squash/slice of Napolitana pumpkin, eggplant/Amoro pumpkin, cherry tomatoes, leeks/onions/garlic.
Large box, in addition: Watermelon/melon, parsley/coriander, acorn squash.
FRUIT BOXES: Apples, grapes, mango, plums.
Wednesday: Red bell peppers/zucchini, lettuce, corn, New Zealand spinach, cucumbers/fakus, tomatoes, okra/Thai yard-long beans, butternut squash/slice of Napolitana pumpkin, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, onions.
Large box, in addition: Amoro pumpkin/melon, leeks/garlic, parsley/coriander.
FRUIT BOXES: Banana, grapes, mango, plums.