The fruit – er, vegetable – of duality

“You like potato and I like potahto. You like tomato and I like tomahto. Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto: Let’s call the whole thing off.”

Mais pourquoi, Ira Gershwin? Particularly when everyone loves a good tomah, er, tomato. (A white potato – meh. Now a sweet potato, that’s a different story.)

But back to tomatoes: Everyone enjoys a good tomato, right? Especially at this time of the year, when folks are busy cultivating their gardens (thank you, Voltaire) and getting ready to relish a juicy tomato plucked from the vine (or from a roadside stand, where it waits patiently for you along with its country cousin, corn). Put a few slices of tomato between two pieces of bread with just a little mayo – mm, mm, mm. Or maybe you chop it up and mix it with a little garlic, olive oil and basil to top a bit of bruschetta, eh? Or some nice fresh pasta.

That’s the great thing about the tomato: You can slice it, dice it, crush it, chunk it, can it, jar it, serve it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and still not exhaust the possibilities. It’s one of nature’s perfect creations, part of what my former editor Meryl Harris once said was the perfect sandwich – the BLT.

And yet – you know, dear reader, that lavish praise is always followed by an “and yet” – the red-hot tomato has its devilish side. (Not for nothing is its juice the basis of the Bloody Mary.)

The tomato has been the chosen fruit of opprobrium, hurled in its less-than-fresh variety at bad performers and tyrannical officials alike. No doubt that’s why Rotten Tomatoes, a website by Flixster that tabulates movie reviews, notes the favorable ones with bright red tomatoes and the unfavorable with green splats. (A movie is given a percentage based on how many fresh tomatoes it receives.)

The town of Buñol, Spain, doesn’t need any such excuses. On the last Wednesday of August, residents gather to hurl more than 115,000 kilograms, about 254,000 pounds, of tomatoes at one another during the Tomatina Festival. Must have something to do with the scantily clad girls dripping in tomato pulp.

The tomato comes by its dual nature honestly. Originating in ancient Mesoamerica, where it was called the “tomatl,” the tomato is a member of the infamous nightshade family. During the age of colonization, it made its way to Europe and into continental folk tales in which werewolves used its cousin – deadly nightshade or belladonna – to complete their lupine transformation. Hence the scientific classification of the tomato, Solanum lycopersicum, with the second word translated as “wolf peach.”

Yet to the Italians, Poles and Russians, the tomato is an “apple of gold” (pomodoro), while the Serbs, Slovenians and Hungarians think of it as an “apple of paradise” (Pardeisapfel).

Maybe it’s what Eve used to tempt Adam in the Garden of Eden. Would that make her a “hot tomato?” Not unless she made Hollywood flicks in the first half of the 20th century. That’s where you are most likely to hear this slang for an extremely appealing woman. The term is derived – and here, dear reader, you can have your pick – either from the French habit of trying to turn everything into an aphrodisiac and thus referring to the tomato as a pomme d’amour or “love apple” – or, more likely, from the flappers’ preference for bright red lipstick.

So you can see the problem: The tomato – nutritious or poisonous, good or evil? With such an ambiguous pedigree, it took a long time for the lovely crimson botantical to make its way into the heart of America, even though it was born in our hemisphere. But eventually it took off – thanks, according to, to Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Campbell (soup), Andy Warhol (paintings of Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans) and some guy named Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson, who ate a whole basket of tomatoes in 1830, thus proving they wouldn’t make you foam at the mouth, die or turn into a werewolf. On the contrary, tomatoes are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

But a more controversial dichotomy was lurking here: The tomato – fruit or vegetable?

Technically, a tomato is a fruit as “the seed-bearing ovary of a flower,” says the Tomato Gardening Guru. But tell that to the U.S. Supreme Court. Never let it be said that a fruit can’t become a vegetable, especially when money and the American law are involved. In 1887, tomato importer John Nix sued Edward L. Hedden, tax collector for the port of New York, arguing that since the tomato is a fruit, it was exempt from the 10-percent tariff on vegetables. But in Nix v. Hedden, the Supreme Court found that while the tomato is technically a fruit, it is used practically as a vegetable – in appetizers and main courses, not desserts.

Thanks to the Supremes, the tomato is the state vegetable of New Jersey and the state fruit of Ohio.

Arkansas, most wisely, decided to have it both ways, declaring the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato to be the state fruit and vegetable.

Those clever Arkansans: They know the tomato is just delish – any way you slice it.

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