As popular as tomatoes are today, there was a time when our ancestors avoided them like the plague. The juicy, red fruits we've grown to love sliced over mozzarella with basil and a drizzle of olive oil, cooked into a sauce for pasta or layered onto a sandwich, once were believed to be poisonous.
Tomato leaves and stems are, in fact, toxic if ingested, as the plant belongs to the Solanaceae family and is a relative of deadly nightshade. Even its botanical name, Lycopersicon, is ominous: It means "wolf peach."
Native to South America, tomatoes are said to have been discovered by the Incans and later enjoyed by the Mayans and Aztecs. Their history is sketchy, but it's believed that an explorer, possibly Hernando Cortes or even Christopher Columbus, is responsible for introducing the fruit to Spain, Italy and France. But the English didn't embrace the fruit's safety, and their American settlers followed suit.
In "American Tomato: The Complete Guide to Growing and Using Tomatoes," author Robert Hendrickson relates the story of Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson, "an eccentric gentleman" of Salem, N.J., who in 1820 took to the courthouse steps to eat a basket of wolf peaches, sideshow-style. Expecting to witness certain death, the townspeople gathered to watch and were amazed when the colonel survived. And by 1835, tomatoes began to show up on dinner plates across America.
Today there are thousands of varieties, categorized as plum (for cooking or paste), beefsteak (the largest of the bunch), cherry (for snacking) and salad tomatoes, perfectly sized for cutting into wedges.
The old, genetically diverse heirloom varieties likely grown by those brave settlers and passed down through their families are considered by many to be the best-tasting. Unfortunately, they tend to succumb to disease more often than their hybridized modern relatives, many of which have been selectively bred for qualities that make them easier to care for in the home garden.
On Long Island, backyard gardeners favor both heirlooms and hybrids. My favorites are the Bonnie Grape, the tastiest of all the snacking tomatoes, in my opinion, which has yielded more than 1,000 tomatoes per plant for me this summer, and the Big Boy, first recommended to me by reader Paul Nardone of Massapequa, which has become the only full-sized tomato worthy of my precious garden space.
Nardone grows more than 270 tomato plants in his backyard every summer. Other popular varieties here include Big Zac, Beefsteak, Mortgage Lifter, Porterhouse, Super Steak, Belgium, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and San Marzano.
I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with many of these beauties at the 4th annual Great Long Island Tomato Challenge, which I hosted at Newsday on Aug. 27. More than 150 gardeners shared their growing tips and strategies and lined up at my scale, clutching their precious fruits in the hopes of being named Tomato King or Queen.
A Giant Delicious grown by Linda Levy of Levittown earned the distinction of ugliest tomato. Aleigha Juliano, the youngest contestant at just 2, talks to her tomatoes every day and pats their leaves. She might be onto something, because her Beefsteak weighed in at 15.9 ounces.
Fernando Ferreira of Lake Ronkonkoma revealed, too, that his secret is talking to his plants and giving them "lots of love." That personal attention yielded a majestic 2 pound, 5 ounce Beefheart that was the third-largest tomato of the evening.
Pamela Kay of East Meadow, who treats her plants to homemade compost, was new to the competition this year with her 1 pound, 6.1 ounce Beefsteak entry. "I picked up some valuable pointers on growing tomatoes, and it was enjoyable to gather with friendly fellow gardeners," she said, adding that "since childhood, I have been putting pits, seeds, leaves and other things in dirt to see if they'll grow."
But the piece de resistance was a 2-pound, 9-ounce tomato, known as The Dom, grown by Billy King, 40, of Mastic Beach. Never heard of The Dom? The last time we came face to face with this variety it was being called "Ugly."
That was in 2007, at the very first Long Island Tomato Challenge, when Vincenzo Domingo was crowned Tomato King for a 3 pound, 14 ounce entry he called the ugly tomato.
Domingo named it that because, well, it was ugly, but also because he didn't have a name for the heirloom that had been in the family for quite some time. The seeds were sent to him by his brother, who lived in Sicily, and he'd been growing killer tomatoes with seeds saved from year to year.
When Domingo won the challenge, King, a diesel truck mechanic for the Town of Islip and competitive pumpkin grower in his own right, saw an opportunity: He contacted Domingo, who sent him a bunch of seeds, and King has been growing those tomatoes ever since. Paying homage to the man who provided the seeds, King named his tomato The Dom.
So, what's his secret? "Soil prep." King incorporates "a lot" of horse manure into his soil every fall and adds compost in spring. "I also use a lot of fish emulsion and liquid seaweed," he said, but he doesn't prune his plants: "That exposes the fruit too much, and they get sunburn." From every cluster of tomatoes on a plant, King removes all but the largest; he left just four tomatoes on each of his 18 plants this year. As he will attest, it only takes one to win.
And now King is the King. Last week, in his third quest for the title, I had the pleasure of placing a medal and ribbon around his neck and dubbing him the 2010 Long Island Tomato King.
His son, Billy King Jr., 4, had the second-largest tomato at the challenge, a 2 pound, 7 ounce Belmont. His strategy? "I did everything my dad did."
Apparently, the tomato doesn't fall far from the vine.