A ranking of my Most Significant Tomatoes typically begins and ends in summer with whichever ones made the panzanella and gazpacho sing. An all-time Top 10 hook is what William Alexander uses to engage consideration of the vegetable born of South and Central Americas, grown on every continent, and now consumed at the rate of a billion pounds a year.
Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World: A History has 10 chapters, but tells the stories of dozens of varieties, with perhaps a few more incidental tales than needed. Having plumbed the costs of growing firsthand brandywines in The $64 Tomato (2006), the author is well equipped to recount the rise of those, and other, heirloom specimens in response to decades of mutated, mass-produced tomato mediocrity.
First, though, he offers 250-plus pages of background. Tomatoes have had their ups and downs. Nobody much liked them for what they were, which was berry small and bitter. The Aztecs ate them with chiles and spices. Renaissance Europe characterized them as poisonous and stinking. The tomato’s chief pest in early 19th century northeastern America—the tomato hornworm—was frightening enough to scare folks away from the plants altogether until physicians and snake-oil salesmen espoused tomatoes, fresh and extracted, as healthful.
Advances in preservation and canning propelled the tomato’s popularity, especially one cultivar dubbed “beefsteak” and grown so large that only one could fit per can. One of the key advancements offered by the Big Boy variety, introduced in 1949 after a decade of scientific breeding, was reducing the height of the plant itself. Before that, tomato vines attached to poles reached heights of 15 feet or more, and farmers had to climb ladders to prune and pick.
Surprisingly, the French were eating pommes d’amour (“love apples!”) long before Italians stirred up a single tomato recipe. Yet it took the warm, dry climate of southern Italy and its terra cotta roofs to devise the cheapest way of enjoying tomatoes off-season: sun-dried.
We learn that rich volcanic soil was at the root of San Marzano tomatoes’ success; that variety’s path to protected status is extensively detailed. Throughout the book, Alexander makes his tomato exploration personal, such as including a car rental interlude during a quest to discover how Naples became the epicenter of the tomato-sauced Margherita pizza. (It has to do with legend, the proximity of those San Marzanos, and the will to preserve the past, the author contends.) This leads to a lengthy take on doughs and diets and the global pizza market, just to underscore how tomatoes have “conquered the globe.”
Talk of sauce turns to America’s favorite bottled condiment, and more side stories of Henry Heinz and sodium benzoate (a preservative denounced and removed), and the resulting sweet, naturally thickened substance that Heinz ketchup turned into a brand asset. “And let’s not forget,” Alexander writes of the ketchup, “that into every bottle … go two dozen tomatoes. Or rather, their equivalent in paste.” He also interviews experts to confirm what is widely recognized: Humans crave umami, and tomatoes are full of it.
Except for the ones picked green and splat-proof in Florida, that is. In a chapter called “Who Killed the Tomato?” the author tours and even pitches in at the largest commercial grower of field tomatoes in the country. Here, his research and backstories are at their best, highlighting the development of orbs designed to be cheap and travel far—at the expense of taste. The state’s industry goes for a “mature green” that can be gassed and arrive at supermarkets and fast-food chains with a semblance of red tomato.
Due to the speed and volume at which they’re picked, less than 15 percent of the greens are harvested at that “ideal” stage. The process shortchanges flavor development. The system’s not to blame, however. Alexander faults consumers and their insatiable demand.
Tomatoes grown indoors provide an alternative. Yields from greenhouses and hydroponic farms can be produced at prices close to that of field tomatoes, with flavor built in via terroir-like trace elements in the water and fertilizer. If you have been satisfied with the taste of a Campari tomato, you’re already onboard. The technology holds promise for seasonal standards like strawberries and cucumbers as well. Yet assessing its environmental impact and weighing potential offsets is tricky business, as Alexander attempts to survey the issues.
It’s a good thing he can deliver the intel with style. I “didn’t know that” nuggets kept me turning pages. A sampler: In Italy, tomato sauce became a standard topping for pasta a mere 150 years ago—instead of pork fat. One of the most common varieties grown by tomato-loving Ghana is the Roma, developed in 1955 in Beltsville, Md. During the Prohibition era, speakeasies served women customers spaghetti whose tomato sauce was made with house wine.
Happily, the high season of juicy, sun-kissed tomatoes is at hand—a fine time to dig into Alexander’s work, slice into a ripe specimen, and appreciate the full measure of peduncle, flesh, seed, and gel.
Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World: A History
By William Alexander
Grand Central Publishing, 320 pp., $27
Bonnie S. Benwick, formerly of the Washington Post food section, is a freelance editor and recipe tester. You can find her on Instagram: @bbenwick.