What score would a tomato get on Rotten Tomatoes? Depends on the variety, but high 90s at least, possibly even 100%, placing it firmly in the hallowed ranks of classics like Singin' In The Rain (1954), The Terminator (1984) and Toy Story (1995).
Because almost everyone loves the tasty and versatile tomato. It’s a staple of cuisines the world over and without it many of our favourite dishes – including pizzas, curries, salads, stews and salsas – would be a pale imitation of themselves.
But what if we told you that for over 200 years tomatoes were only hated, but feared throughout Europe? Oh and they're also not even remotely Italian. Really.
Let's ketchup on some history.
Probably the first of what we would call “tomatoes” came from South America, around the region now known as Peru and Solanum Chilense can still be found growing wild in the Andes today.
These wild tomatoes were actually about the size of a pea and looked very different to their modern counterparts. History suggests the Aztecs were the first to have domesticated the tomatl and used it in their cooking, but it was the conquistadors who introduced it to Europe (via Spain) in 1521, only a few years ahead of another new world delicacy, chocolate.
THE ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES
The tomato was accepted with alacrity into the kitchens of Southern Europe, yet as it moved north, it encountered a growing resistance. In fact, up until the late 17th century, a nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because aristocrats sometimes got sick and died after eating them.
This may sound crazy, but there was truth to the story, though not for the reasons believed at the time.
It was the custom for wealthy people back then to use plates made of pewter, an alloy made of tin and lead. When high-acid foods like tomato came in contact with the pewter, it would cause the lead to leech out into the food, resulting in lead poisoning, and in the very worst cases, death.
When high-acid foods like tomato came in contact with the pewter, it would cause the lead to leech out into the food, resulting in poisoning and death.
Science, being somewhat in its infancy, failed to pick up on the link, preferring instead to blame the poor tomatoes for the deaths. In this assumption, they were aided no little amount by the fact that the tomato is a member of the Solanaceae family, informally known as “nightshade.” Whilst many of the flowering plants in this family are deliciously lacking poison (hello eggplant, potato and capsicum), there are others including mandrake and belladonna which are highly toxic and can do all kinds of nasty shit to our internal organs.
Ironically, the poor people of the day ate off trenchers made of wood and were unencumbered by this problem. Hence they did not have an aversion to tomatoes, and big red remained a food of the poor well into the 1800's.
It'd be remiss to tell the story of tomatoes and not mention the Italian love affair and the invention of a tasty bread-based dish that was to be the seminal moment in the tomato’s history.
The tomato was first introduced to Italy in 1544, although at this stage it was yellow and the size of a cherry tomato. It appears in a herbal guide by Pietro Andrea Mattoli, who called it the Pomo d’oro, or golden apple – which is where we get the modern Italian word 'pomodoro'.
It quickly became a permanent fixture in Italian cuisine, with farmers selectively breeding the plant into the larger, red varietals we know and love today.
As a sign of his patriotic fervour, Raffaele Esposito made the pizza from three ingredients representing the colours of the new Italian flag: red, white, and green.
The story goes that pizza was invented in Naples in the late 1880's, by a restaurateur wanting to celebrate the visit of Queen Margarite, the first Italian monarch since Napoleon conquered Italy. As a sign of his patriotic fervour, Raffaele Esposito made the pizza from three ingredients representing the colours of the new Italian flag: red, white, and green. The red was tomato sauce, the white - mozzarella cheese, and the green - basil topping.
And thus the Margherita Pizza was born. It quickly became the gold standard for assessing any pizza joint, and also pretty much secured the future of the tomato. This was helped no small amount by the immigration of millions of Italians to the U.S, and the introduction of pizza to a whole new audience who took to it in a big way.
Neither America nor Italy is the world’s largest consumer of tomatoes, that honour goes to China.
It is estimated that the Chinese consume a whopping 40,670Kt of tomatoes every year - that’s about 325 BILLION tomatoes, equivalent to 232 big reds for each and every man, woman and child in China. Every single year. Gulp!
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Almost all of us have at least one can of Italian canned tomatoes residing in our cupboards. But after reading what we are about to tell you, you may well decide to throw them out and opt for locally grown tomatoes instead, like Ardmona which are grown in Victoria's Goulburn Valley region.
“Sadly, there is a less savoury side to the tomato’s history, with the sun-kissed image of Italian canned tomatoes being tainted by revelations of products picked and processed by mafia-run, modern slave labour.”
As always, cost is the main culprit. Tinned tomatoes are sold by many supermarkets as a loss leader. Because they are so integral to so many dishes, supermarkets know that consumers purchasing tomatoes will also be buying numerous other products such as pasta, cheese etc. The mark ups on these goods can cover the shortfall lost on the tinned tomatoes.
This creates a downward squeeze on price as supermarkets routinely enter into bidding wars to find the cheapest supplier. Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that these suppliers, in order to turn a profit, are simply ignoring the human cost.
“When you see very cheap products, you have to ask how are suppliers getting that cost down so much?”
In 2018, there were estimated to be 50,000 enslaved agricultural workers in Italy - Global Slavery Index
Thousands of immigrant workers (usually from Africa or Eastern Europe) are employed by mafia-controlled companies and made to work long hours in gruelling conditions, for very little (or no) money. They have few rights and are housed in remote ghettos in conditions of unimaginable squalor.
Every aspect of their lives is rigorously controlled by mafia work-gang masters who use fear and intimidation to induce compliance. Rape, violence and murder are commonplace. It may be hard for us to stomach it, but the unpalatable truth is that those Italian tomatoes that are cheaper than the Aussie equivalent are probably being harvested by slaves.
Measures have been taken by large corporations to ensure their tomatoes are harvested “ethically” but unfortunately the verification systems meant to ensure farmers obey the law and don’t exploit their workers are often as unethical as the labour practices themselves.
Workplace inspectors are “very few and very corrupt”, The Guardian found, and the certification bodies that are meant to give supermarkets and other buyers an ethical audit of where their produce is coming from, are often a tick-box, hands-off report paid for by the tomato growers themselves.
It’s yet another example of globalised supply chains chasing profits at the expense of people and planet. Unfortunately, this story is one that is all too familiar to those of us working in the fashion industry. And in fact, it was one of the primary drivers that led us to creating Citizen Wolf, in an effort to produce ethically-made and sustainable tees, right here in Sydney.
A TASTY ADDITION TO YOUR WARDROBE
Red is without doubt, the single most dynamic and passionate colour in the spectrum. Variously, it can symbolise love, rage, courage, excitement, passion, danger, energy, and action. People who love red tend to be energetic, impulsive and driven.
So, if you feel passionately about the humble, delicious and world-changing tomato, then hop on the Citizen Wolf website and sauce yourself one today. The rich dark red colour looks good enough to eat but you better hurry, cause if you miss out on limited edition Tomato, you’re gonna feel rotten.