Commentary: Tomato tornado

Today marks a pivotal, if not bizarre, day in US culinary history.

The tomato: It’s the fourth most popular vegetable* in America. From salsa to the Bloody Mary cocktail, I dare you to try to go a day without eating something made with tomatoes. This wasn’t always  the case though. For hundreds of years, actually, the English-speaking world saw the tomato as a pariah; in the 1500’s word spread that the nightshade was poisonous. It wasn’t until September 26, 1820 that one man dared brave the dangers of the tomato: his name was Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey.

Johnson, who knew the tomato wasn’t poisonous, staged an event at the Salem courthouse where he ate a basketful of tomatoes. A crowd gathered to watch him die, and his own physician said he would “foam and froth at the mouth, and double over.”

Within 15 years, tomatoes could be found in markets across the country. Today, 191 years later, between 45,000 to 60,000 acres of soil around 20 states produce tomatoes, which pump $2 billion dollars into the national economy. This year, the average American will consume over 20 pounds of the stuff, much of it from small gardens within their own homes. Try to imagine your plate today without the delectable dish, And remember to thank Colonel Johnson for making America the land of the tomato.

*or it’s a fruit, depending on who you ask.


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