It seems that the tomato suffered from guilt by association with its toxic cousin, deadly nightshade. Many colonial Americans certainly considered it poisonous. In The Modern Country Cook, Leslie Land reports that in 1820, a Col. Robert Johnson mounted the steps of a New Jersey courthouse and, in an effort to convince his fellow citizens that they were safe to eat, consumed "a basket of tomatoes." (Land doesn't say how big the basket was.) Thomas Jefferson also took the plunge, both growing and eating tomatoes at Monticello. And early 19th-century Creoles used tomatoes in their gumbos and jambalayas, further enhancing the love apple's credibility.
As a second generation Italian-American, I was pleased to learn that my forefathers and foremothers didn't share these New World suspicions and were early fans of the fruit. A recent trip to Italy with my husband and children confirmed that the Italian love affair with the golden apple is still alive and well. In fact, on a warm June day, I had what can only be called an Ultimate Tomato Experience.
We were exploring Palena, a small town nestled in the mountains of the Abruzzo (the region east of Rome), where in 1867 my Uncle Rocco's parents were born. We took a photo of the Perry Como memorial plaque (it turns out Perry's parents were Palenesi), and with the help of three friendly employees at the municipio--the town hall--we found the birth certificate of Francesco Campana and the record of his 1891 marriage to Clotilde Caione.
By this time it was late morning, and since Italian stores close for the afternoon riposo from about 1 to 4 or 4:30 p.m., we knew if we didn't buy our lunch in Palena, we would go hungry. So we stopped in a little grocery store, and while Dan got meat, cheese, and bread, I checked out the produce. All of it was obviously totally local, including a small box of misshapen tomatoes. Despite their somewhat unaesthetic appearance, they were bright in color and felt dead ripe to my touch. I picked out half a dozen.
When we stopped for lunch down the road (in the even tinier town of Faicchio, just northwest of Naples, where my mother's father was born) and unpacked our grocery bag, we cut into the most sublime tomatoes I have ever encountered--dark, juicy, red-orange flesh, none of that pale mealiness you too often see in American supermarket tomatoes. At the first bite, I swooned. These were true heirloom tomatoes. They had never been bred for symmetrical shape, or hardiness to survive an interstate trip by truck. They had not been picked green and ripened with gas. No doubt they tasted as delicious as the tomatoes Francesco and Clotilde enjoyed in 19th-century Palena. I cut thick slices onto my open-faced sandwich and after I finished my sandwich I devoured one like, well, an apple. I washed my hands and face in the Faicchio town fountain and felt a profound connection to my Italian forebears. I drove my kids nuts talking about the tomatoes all the way to Calabria.
Back in Durham, I regretted not having sneaked some of the seeds of those glorious Palena tomatoes past customs. Thank goodness North Carolina has its own tomato high season. Since I'm not much of a gardener, I plan to console myself with the local bounty available at the Food Co-op and the Farmers' Market. I'll line my purchases up on the kitchen counter and smell their perfume. Using the tomato's best Mediterranean friends--basil, garlic and mozzarella--I'll make our favorite tomato salad and an uncooked sauce for pasta. I'll sit around reading cookbooks and old issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit seeking out new tomato recipes to try. (I don't care whether Martha Stewart is an inside trader. Fettucine with Tomato-Anchovy-Caper Sauce sounds good.)
I'll look forward to the Second Annual Tomato Night at the home of one of our neighbors here in Duke Park--a potluck event where conversation will flow along with the wine and where the tomato is king. I'll read Ode to Tomatoes by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, which has tomato juice running through the streets, and ends with the tomato, the "star of the earth," offering its gift "of fiery color and cool completeness." I'll ponder the translation of the tomato's mellifluous scientific name--lycopersicon lycopersicum--which means "wolf peach." Peaches. Now there's a fruit. I wonder what the peaches taste like in Palena.
Summer pasta sauce
Because it's uncooked, this sauce has a delicious sharp, fresh, taste.
Half a dozen ripe tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/3 to 1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup basil leaves, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and gently squeeze out seeds and juice. (This is not absolutely essential, but keeps the sauce from being too watery. I usually save and freeze this liquid to put in soups.) Chop the tomatoes a bit more and put them in a blender or food processor along with the garlic, onions, basil and oil and blend/process until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on top of pasta--penne or fusilli are nice--and grate some cheese on top. In keeping with my southern Italian heritage, I like the sharpness of a Pecorino Romano.
You can use less oil (and sometimes we do), but then the sauce won't be quite as lovely and thick. Leftover sauce can be refrigerated and usually ends up as someone's lunch, eaten straight out of the bowl, a spoon in one hand, a piece of bread in the other. It's that good.
Tomato mozzarella salad
This is based on the Silver Palate's version of the famous insalata caprese. It's a friendly recipe that doesn't really need measurements.
Arrange thick, overlapping slices of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese on a platter. Sprinkle with chopped basil and Italian parsley and pitted Kalamata olives (you can chop the olives or leave them whole). Finish it off with a vinaigrette dressing. With a hunk of good bread, it's a summer meal.
The friendliness of this recipe comes from the fact you can mix and match ingredients depending on what's in your kitchen. You can make it without cheese or without olives or without both. If you don't have both basil and parsley, use one or the other. You can drizzle the salad with olive oil alone (in which case don't forget some salt and pepper), but I prefer the vinegar bite a vinaigrette provides. And if the tomatoes are on the small side, I don't bother to arrange slices on a platter, but just cut up the tomatoes and the cheese and toss everything together in a bowl.
Maria Mangano is a writer and attorney in Durham.