America’s most popular home garden plant happens to be my favorite (and most successful crop) as well. It doesn’t matter if it is fresh from the garden or prepared into a favorite sauce or salsa, the versatility of the tomato makes it easy to understand why it is America’s favorite.
Tomatoes belong to the Solanaceae family, more commonly known as the nightshade family. Other members of the Solanaceae family include peppers, potatoes, tomatillos, eggplant, and even tobacco. For centuries, the association with the nightshade family coupled with the strong scent given off by the plant, led to the myth that tomatoes were truly poisonous.
Long before it was considered fit to eat, it was grown only as an ornamental garden plant, sometimes called "love apple."
Tomatoes are native to the Andes of Peru, where they first grew in the wild as a bright red, marble-sized, cherry-type tomato. Gradually, they would spread throughout South America and north into Central America but then the trail goes cold until Christopher Columbus’ travels to and from the ‘new world’, which would eventually land the fruit in Spain in the mid-16th century.
Over the next several decades, different cultivars spread through Spain, France and Italy and became a widely accepted food in the Mediterranean region. As the tomato varieties spread north and east through Europe, they were not as widely accepted among the English and German and were thought to be poisonous.
As the colonies established in the United States, the tomato became less feared. One of the earliest notable growers of tomatoes was none other than Thomas Jefferson, a remarkably progressive Virginia farmer as well as a statesman, who grew them in the late 1780’s. By the early 1800’s, tomatoes had become a common enhancement in the Creole gumbos and jambalayas of Southern cooking. By 1850, the tomato had made its way into most American urban markets and today is grown world-wide, where the temperate seasons allow. California, Florida, and Georgia lead tomato production in the US.
Tomatoes are rich in vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and fiber. They are also one of the richest sources of lycopene, a phytonutrient that shows great promise in cancer prevention. It’s worth noting that the amount of lycopene increases when tomatoes are cooked, as in a sauce. Regardless of that fact, salsa is still my favorite way to enjoy tomatoes.
This Greek salsa recipe is a twist on the southwest favorite and gives a nod to the Mediterranean region who first accepted tomatoes.
Denise Sullivan is a Nutrition and Health Education Specialist for MU Extension in the Urban West Region, serving Jackson and Platte Counties. For research-based nutrition and food safety information and programs, visit https://extension.missouri.edu/counties/urban-west-region