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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac/The Truth About Tomatoes

Air Date: Week of

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This week, we have facts about the tomato. Once thought to be toxic, this hardy piece of produce has become one of the nation’s favorites.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Oscar Peterson “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” Oscar Peterson Plays the George Gershwin Song Book Polygram (1996)]

CURWOOD: This week in 1820, the story goes, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson climbed the steps of the Salem, New Jersey County Courthouse before an expectant crowd as a band played a dirge. Brandishing a bushel basket filled with a bright red fruit, he declared, “The time will come when this luscious, scarlet apple will form the foundation of a great garden industry.”

And then, to the gasps of onlookers, the colonel bit off a huge chunk of the “wolf’s peach,” known today as the tomato. This event is celebrated in reenactment each year in Salem City. There’s just one thing: it didn’t really happen. It’s just a tall tale loosely based on the science of the time.

The Aztecs domesticated tomatoes, but European botanists suspected the New World crop was poisonous because it comes from the same plant family as toxic belladonna and deadly nightshade. They weren’t completely wrong. Tomato leaves do contain the neurotransmitter, solanine, which can cause vomiting, convulsions and death. After all, Hollywood warned us about the attack of “the killer tomatoes.”

Still, the tomato has grown in popularity – and good thing. What would modern life be without pizza or rather, I should say, the tomato pie? And what would scrambled eggs be without ketchup from the tomato – or if you prefer – the tomahto.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.



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