With Thanksgiving being upon us, I thought I’d share some local history from my home state,
. So picture this. It’s September 26th, 1820, at the courthouse in a South Jersey town named New Jersey . Salem witch burning? No, it’s something even more dangerous—tomato eating. For you see, up until this point, people in the Garden State all think that tomatoes are deadly. And a certain Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson has announced that he will eat not one, but an entire basket of tomatoes, right here on the courthouse steps. A crowd of about 2,000 people has gathered to watch this man consign himself to a horrible death. (Which sounds pretty morbid, but hey, it’s the 1820’s—entertainment options are fairly limited.) Johnson’s own physician, Dr. James Van Meter, is quoted as saying, “The foolish Colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid in one dose and you’re dead. Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, I must warn him that the skin will stick to his stomach, and cause cancer.” He also contends that Johnson is risking getting “brain fever.” U.S.
Johnson, however, is undeterred. He’s Jamaican-born, and brought back tomatoes from Europe back in 1808, and has been encouraging his neighbors to cultivate them since then, even going so far as to offer prizes for the largest fruit. Some of them have done this, but only for ornamental plants—none of them are so stupid as to eat the dreaded tomatoes themselves. Tomatoes are often known by other names at the time—the French call them “love apples” while others call them “wolf peaches.” This last one is because the tomato plant is a member of the nightshade family, which is purported to be connected with werewolves.
A band starts to play a funeral dirge, further emphasizing the mood. High noon arrives. And Johnson takes a bite! The crowd gasps in horror. Those of a more delicate constitution probably look away, or even faint. The good Colonel takes another bite and another, finishing AN ENTIRE TOMATO! Amazingly, he keeps going, eating several more and then…NOTHING HAPPENS! His appendix doesn’t burst, his brain remains at a normal temperature, and he’s fine. People realize, huh, guess we were wrong, and start to eat tomatoes themselves. And thanks to the brave (if kind of grandiose) Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson,
embraces the tomato, paving the way for countless tasty treats like better salads, chili, and pizza. America
Quite a story, right? We here in Dirty Jersey take a lot of ridicule, but this is one thing we can be proud of, a time when Jersey stepped up and showed the rest of the U.S. that they were dumb cowards. Except—whoops, this account is almost certainly folklore. Ultimately, this tale is about as truthful as another
Jersey legend—the Jersey Devil. There was a Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson (1771-1850), who did live in , but pretty much everything else about this story is made up or at least highly exaggerated. The source of this story was reportedly an old farm journal written 86 years after the alleged event, which apparently just said that Johnson ate a tomato in 1820. Later accounts, especially in the 1940’s, filled in the rest of the sordid, entertaining details. Salem, NJ
Tomatoes are native to Central and
South America, and people have been growing and consuming them for at least 1500-2000 years. Cortez (or possibly Columbus) introduced them to Europe in the early 1500’s. The Spanish, Italians, and French all took to this new plant, and have been eating them ever since. While the English, and English-American colonists, were slower to eat tomatoes, it didn’t take until 1820, and it wasn’t from Johnson’s bravery. Thomas Jefferson himself was growing them in 1809, and they’re found on Presidential menus since 1806.
But, back to the golden tomato (I bet you thought I’d never get back to my post’s title topic). I had them for the first time earlier this year. They were the same size as cherry tomatoes, only a yellow color. The comparison to cherry tomatoes continued with the taste—they were maybe a little bit sweeter, but very similar. I don’t know if I could distinguish between them in a blind taste test. Now you probably realize why I spent so much time on the tomato folklore, to fill out the post of a just barely exotic, borderline unusual really, food item. Also I looked it up, and apparently a “golden tomato” is a regional term, or my supermarket’s name. Checking out the list of tomato types, I probably ate a “yellow pear” tomato. And I certainly liked them a lot—but I’m a sucker for tomatoes, ever since I was paid one penny for every cherry tomato my plant produced for the family dinner table when I was about five. (I grossed probably dozens of cents.)
No discussion of tomatoes would be complete without getting into that thorny debate—are they vegetables, or fruit? To botanists this has been settled long ago—since they’re ripened ovaries of the plant, they’re fruit, end of story. However, many folks still lump them in with vegetables, since their taste is undeniably more traditional veggie-like. I was amused to see that this argument went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 10th, 1893, the Supreme Court ruled in Nix vs. Hedden that despite what the scientists claim, they’re legally considered vegetables, because they’re commonly eaten with dinner, and not as a dessert. Before you get all enraged and start writing angry missives to the
Highest Court in the Land, belatedly protesting their waste of time on food trivia, I should mention that there was a practical matter involved. At the time fruit was not taxed, while vegetables were, and farmers used this sort-of loophole to their advantage. But clearly this disagreement wasn’t truly settled. Tomatoes are the official state vegetable of my home state, while they’re the official state fruit of Ohio (and the juice is ’s official state beverage). Ohio covers its ass by having the tomato be both the official state fruit and official state vegetable. Arkansas
All this talk about the tomato has reminded me of something, so you’ll get a bonus film review—Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. I had high hopes going in—the title is a classic, and I’m often a huge fan of so-bad-they’re-good films. Alas, I was profoundly disappointed. It simply wasn’t very funny. I only remember chuckling at one scene (SPOILER ALERT), when a human spy who’s infiltrated the Killer Tomatoes blows his cover by asking for ketchup to season his supper. It was amateurish in every way. So bad it was just bad, I’m afraid.
Finally, as is traditional, I’d like to say that on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for folklore, no matter how silly and obscure it is. In fact, the more absurd, the better.