Is it fruit or vegetable? Doesn’t matter for ’mater

BY BOB WACHS, Columnist
Posted 5/22/20

In our world today, there are all kinds of awards and honors — Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, military medals and ribbons, North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the award I got from my college …

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Is it fruit or vegetable? Doesn’t matter for ’mater

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In our world today, there are all kinds of awards and honors — Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, military medals and ribbons, North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the award I got from my college buddies for being the best sleeper on the second floor of Mangum Dorm and missing the most classes, just to name a few.

Of all the existing honors and those that should exist, however, there is one, I think, that’s long overdue because of all it does and means, especially this time of the year.

There should be an award, or at least a bronze plaque, in honor of a fellow named Robert Johnson, who, according to tradition, stood before a large crowd of folks on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey, on September 26, 1820, and, before their very eyes, ate a tomato to prove it wasn’t poisonous.

See, prior to that, folks weren’t so certain. Oh, to be sure, somewhere along the line it’s likely other folks ate one or two, maybe with a loaf of fresh bread and a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise. But the conventional wisdom was that the thing deserved its nickname “poison apple.” Folks in Germany, for instance, believed if you ate one you turned into a werewolf. In my time, I have seen some folks act up if they didn’t get one — but never a werewolf. The reason for all that suspicion, experts tell us, is because the tomato plant bears a strong resemblance to something called “night shade plant,” which is poisonous.

The tomato has come a long way from its humble origins as a plant growing wild in the Andes area of South America — today’s Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. Historians tell us the Aztecs and Incas knew about them around 700 A.D. I wonder how they at theirs without mayonnaise or hot buttered biscuits.

Anyway, by 1710, tomatoes had made their way into some writings of a fellow named William Salmon, who noted they were present in “the Carolinas.” Pretty appropriate for today, don’t you think?

Apparently, it was about that time or a little later that tomatoes began to get a bad rap. A fellow named John Gerald, a barber/surgeon, decreed they were dangerous because they contained low levels of a toxic chemical. That claim turned out to be true but the levels were so low that they were and are not dangerous.

Today, the tomato is talked about, analyzed, turned into juice or sauce, or just eaten, with the previously mentioned mayonnaise and bread or off the vine like an apple. Scientists tell us they’re really a fruit, at least botanically speaking. But so, too, they say are avocados, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, pepper and okra. I’m pretty sure my mama would have something to say about all that.

Anyway, whatever they are, they are good, at least the homegrown ones much more than the cardboard variety grown halfway. Around the world, picked and packed green, sprayed with something or another so they won’t rot and then shipped to their destination.

In case anyone is interested, I am willing to provide a site for the award for recognizing Mr. Johnson and his achievement. It won’t be in New Jersey but we will have a tomato sandwich to celebrate.

After all, it’s about summer, y’all.


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