Lilly Baumann is one of fourteen First Year students from Kalamazoo College to visit our farm last Fall as a part of a service-learning project sponsored by the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement. After helping us select and save tomato seeds, Lilly researched the history of tomatoes and their travels around the globe. We currently have twenty-six varieties of tomatoes started in flats, ranging from big pink-fruited sandwich tomatoes to yellow and black cherry tomatoes. We are even growing a hollow tomato that is perfect for stuffing! It’s going to be a couple of months before these plants bear their lovely fruit; in the meantime, enjoy Lilly’s post and ponder her questions about the importance of understanding the cultural history of the food we eat.
Our current industrialized food system distances us from our food, not allowing us to understand how it was grown, where it came from, or the impact it had on the people and environment around it. Because of this distance, it is difficult to have respect for the food that we eat, which allows us to feel more emotionally and spiritually connected to the food we eat. Growing our own food, or being aware of where our food is coming from, by buying from small local farms such as Harvest of Joy Farm, can help us to deepen our connection with our food. When I visited the farm, I was amazed to see the variety of plants they had. By helping with some of the processes around the farm, harvesting and saving seeds, I felt a deeper appreciation for the food and the work that goes into growing and harvesting it. It is also important to look at the origins of these foods and understand the cultural significance these foods had for the people who first grew them. By building this understanding of our food and becoming more deeply connected with it can help us to enjoy our food better, as we gain a respect for the plant, the ground it grew in and the people who grew it.
One plant that has an interesting origin story is the tomato. When you think of tomatoes, what country do you think of? Italy, right? While Italy was one of the first countries in the west to popularize tomatoes, they are originally from South America, in the Andes Mountains region, most likely, Peru. The origin story of tomatoes is a bit complicated, and there is not much information about the original cultivators of tomatoes. It is thought that they were first cultivated by the Mayans in Mexico, but there is not much information about how they were cultivated or the cultural significance they had for the Mayans. Most of the earliest documentations of people eating tomatoes come from Italy in the 1500s. It is most likely that they were brought to Europe from South America or Mexico by Spanish explorers.
When the tomato was brought back to Spain, it was recognized to be a part of the nightshade family, and therefore many people were skeptical about eating it at first. The Italians were some of the first people to start cooking and eating tomatoes, as they started to prepare tomatoes as they would eggplant, also a nightshade. This idea then spread to other parts of Europe such as France and Spain. Tomatoes were brought back to the Americas by the European settlers, but they were not eaten until much later, as many people feared that they were poisonous, similar to other nightshades such as mandrakes. However, tomatoes were grown as decorations in the 1700s. It is thought that Thomas Jefferson was one of the first people to promote eating tomatoes in the United States, after eating them while in France. In the early 1800s, more people began eating tomatoes, as more areas in the U.S. became heavily influenced by various European cultures, such as the French influence in New Orleans. Tomatoes were most often eaten in a processed form, such as ketchup, because people still feared that they were poisonous. Now, it is known that tomatoes are not poisonous, and they have become the one of the most widely produced crop in the U.S., second only to corn; however, still 75% of the tomatoes we consume are processed, whether that be canned, condensed, or ketchup.
While researching the history of tomatoes can help us to understand them better, it is still hard to become more deeply connected with them, as there are many gaps in the tomato’s story, such as its significance in Mayan culture when it was first being cultivated, or how they were used by the original cultivators. It is also interesting to note the amount of processed tomatoes Americans eat, as opposed to fresh. How can we become more connected to our food if it is so highly processed? Not only are we not aware of how tomatoes are grown or who is growing and picking them, an additional level of distance is added when the produce is processed, taking it further from its original form.
What do you think about the distance our food system create between us and our food? Should we have a better understanding of the origins of our food and their cultural significance? What are ways in which you minimize this distance?