As I begin a new chapter as an empty nester, I have grown nostalgic reminiscing about all of the meals I have prepared for my children over the years and all the special requests for their favorites. It has been a pleasure to create and serve every meal. With an empty house, I will have to learn to prepare much smaller meals. I imagine our grocery bill will go down drastically. As the mornings as of late have grown chilly and we’ll soon be heading into fall, I am in the mood to make soup. I am one of those people who could really enjoy a cup or bowl of soup all year long. A family favorite in our home and especially among the kids is my creamy tomato basil soup. Tomato soup is quintessential American comfort food, usually eaten with a grilled cheese sandwich. (I’ll save the grill cheese for another day.)
We love all things tomato. It’s hard to believe that we Americans have not always embraced the tomato, in fact history shows us that the relationship got off to a rocky start. During Colonial Times, we wouldn’t put a tomato near our mouths, let alone try to eat one. Folklore had it that if you ate a tomato, its poison would turn your blood into acid. Instead, the colonists grew tomatoes purely for decoration. We eventually came around and jumped on the bandwagon after it was almost full!
Native peoples in South and Central America, where the plant originated, didn’t have any misapprehensions regarding the safety of eating tomatoes. In fact, some sources claim that they regarded tomato seeds as an aphrodisiac. The French name, pomme d’amour, or “apple of love,” suggests that they agreed, though some experts suspect that the name was a misunderstanding of the Spanish “pome dei Moro,” or “apple of the Moors.”
Probably the first tomatoes came from what today is Peru, and wild tomatoes can still be found in the Andes. By the time the conquistadors came to Central and South America, there was widespread cultivation of tomatoes, though there’s much debate about where tomatoes were first raised and about exactly how they made their way north to Mexico.
It’s also unclear whether Spanish explorers knew about the tomato’s reputation as a love aid, though they did think enough of the tomato to bring it back to Europe, where it was embraced long before we Americans succumbed to its charms. By the mid-16th century, it had been mentioned in a Nepalese cookbook. It is amusing to think that the tomato, which most of us think of as quintessentially Italian, in fact evolved on a different continent in a different hemisphere.
Even more bizarre, the fruit was not introduced to the U.S. and Canada via Mexico, where it was well established, but via European immigrants. Talk about taking the long way around. Eventually the tomato was redeemed in part due to a big boost from America’s Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. According to the writings of Peter J. Hatch, director of the Monticello Gardens and Grounds, Jefferson grew tomatoes and his daughters and granddaughters used them in numerous recipes including gumbo soups. The Jefferson women also pickled them and, in general, promoted their use in cooking.
What Jefferson and his family helped start (maybe), Joseph Campbell of Campbell’s soup fame finished. The tomato had made steady progress through the 19th century, so that by the 1870s or 80s, seed catalogues often offered several varieties of tomatoes. When Campbell came out with condensed tomato soup in 1897, the tomato’s place in American culinary history was assured. In 1897, soup mogul Joseph Campbell came out with condensed tomato soup, a move that set the company on the road to wealth as well as further endearing the tomato to the general public. And while Campbell may have made tomato soup popular, the first recipe is credited to Maria Parloa whose 1872 book The Appledore Cook Book describes her tomato chowder.
Do you ever wonder why we debate if a tomato is a fruit or vegetable? I found this to be very interesting… Part of the blame on the U.S. Supreme Court and maybe some on government greed. In 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed a 10 percent duty on vegetables, but none on fruit. A tomato importer named John Nix sued the tax collector for the port of New York, Edward L. Hedden, arguing that tomatoes, since they were “really” fruits, should be exempt from the tax. Read Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893) here.
The botanical claim was not in dispute; tomatoes, as the seed-bearing ripened ovary of a flower, are fruits. Yet in a triumph of ordinary language over scholarly, the highest court of the land ruled in 1893 that the tomato was a vegetable and therefore subject to the tariff. In his decision, Justice Gray wrote: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people … all these are vegetables … which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are … usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” If you’re not too distracted by the vision of a Supreme Court justice pontificating on the distinction between dinner and dessert, you can contemplate two further botanical curiosities: First, most of us have heard that the tomato is “really” a fruit, but did you know that it is even more really a berry? Yes, really. Furthermore, this plant that most Americans grow exclusively as an annual is actually a perennial and will grow as such in its native and wild state. In fact, if inclined, you can nurse a tomato through the winter indoors and set it out again the next year! (This is defiantly something that I am game to try!)
Tomatoes have come a long way! The tomato is the state vegetable of New Jersey, and Arkansas has it both ways: the tomato is both the state fruit and the state vegetable. The USDA reports that each of us consumes close to 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes every year — and for the lucky amongst us, many of those tomatoes are homegrown.
Today’s featured recipe was made with tomatoes and basil from our local Farmer’s Market. If you want to kick the flavors up a notch, roast your tomatoes.
Keeping it fresh!
Creamy Tomato Basil Soup