Now is the time of summer when our neighbor Preacher Thomason brings us tomatoes from his garden, a tidal wave of tomatoes in baskets and sacks and buckets-- so many that it's not worth our trouble to grow our own anymore. Preacher grows an old family hybrid, he says, and, freshly picked, they're pure ambrosia.
But does anyone realize that tomatoes did not always grow in our sweet earth, and that no tomatoes grew in North America at all until the 18th Century? It's hard to imagine, but our Founding Fathers framed the Constitution and formed our wonderful nation without ever having tasted tomatoes. If they had, there would probably be something in the Bill of Rights about it, right up there in the Fifth Amendment with life, liberty, property ... and tomatoes.
In his book of essays, The Unemployed Fortune-Teller
, the poet Charles Simic explains it this way. Tomatoes were not discovered by Europeans until the 1500s when the Spaniards plundered Peru. The Incas grew them and called them "tomatls." But "tomatl" is an Aztec word, suggesting that tomatls may have grown originally in Mexico. The etymological root of the Aztec word "tomatl" is "toma", which means "to swell" or "to grow plump"; "tl" apparently means "it."
The Spaniards took the tomatl back to Spain as a curiosity, but they did not realize that it was edible, a precious secret which the Incas managed to save for themselves. The plants became popular as decorative garden items, though: most people thought they were poisonous, but they liked the way they looked.
It took another two hundred years, until 1781, before Thomas Jefferson imported some tomatl seeds to Virginia and had his slaves begin to cultivate them. And then someone--no doubt a slave--performed a genuine act of history by biting into a tomatl and discovering what this sweet, plump Balm of Gilead really was.
That's what Simic says, anyway.
Another poet, Guy Clark, puts it this way: "Only two things that money can't buy / That's true love and homegrown tomatoes."