Tag Archives: tomatoes

Tomatoes are not Italian

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” – Lewis Grizzard

For an Italian, the tomato is nearly as important as the grape. In fact, I’m pretty sure they have equal billing.  While traveling through Italy, tomato’s are easy to come by.  Whether ordering a savory dish in one of the restaurante’s, or  wandering through an Italian marketplace, the tomato is pretty hard to avoid.

Without a doubt, there are a bazillion dishes where the tomato is one of the main ingredients, or in which it is used as the base for recipes. No doubt, between its color, flavor or versatility, the tomato is a main staple in Italy, and has been so for hundreds of years.

As much as us Italian’s would like to take credit for the tomato, we cannot.  Tomatoes made there way along side of potatoes, hot peppers (pepperocino) corn and the sweet potato during the voyages of Cristoforo Columbo, making their way into Spain at the beginning of the 1500’s; they originated with the Aztec’s.

The tomato plant was originally from Chile or Ecuador; where the climate is tropical, and tomatoes can produce year-round. Here in America, the production of the tomato is limited to annual growth, and in Italy, it’s much the same.

In an article written by Jackelin J. Jarvis, she says “The tomato comes form the plant family solanacee. Its cousin the eggplant, was in those times, the preferred fruit in the Arabic World. Today, with the exception of Italian (because the tomato is called pomodoro), the word “tomato” is similar in all other languages- seeing that is was derived from the Aztec word for the plant. The original plant that was imported into Europe was called xitomatl, but it actually referred to the ‘Tomatl.’ The Tomatl was another plant similar to the tomato, but smaller, and the fruits were a greenish-yellow color and today are called ‘Tomatillo.’ These tomatoes are still used in Central American cooking.(The Spanish call both tomate).”

Despite the historical origin of the tomato, somehow I would still like to believe that it has Italian roots.  Perhaps I am in a bit of food denial, but I’m sure it’s because of the relationship that Italian’s have with the tomato.  However, it is amusing to think that the tomato, which most of us think of as quintessentially Italian, evolved on a different continent in a different hemisphere. Even so, it’s very difficult to think of Italian cuisine without the use of the tomato, unless of course we are discussing tira misu or a bottle of Enzo Boglietti. The tomato has been a part of Italian culture for a very long time, and for that I am grateful!  Still, there is no doubt that Italian’s have a relationship with the tomato!

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Here’s another news-flash, Roma tomatoes, which are sometimes referred to as Italian tomatoes aren’t even grown in Italy!  Haha!  They are grown in the United States, Mexico, Great Britain and Australia!  Now, the San Marzano tomato is quite another thing.  According to Wikipedia, “The story goes that the first seed of hola the San Marzano tomato came to Campania in 1770, as a gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples, and that it was planted in the area that corresponds to the present commune of San Marzano. They come from a small town of the same name near Naples, Italy, and were first grown in volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Compared to the Roma tomatoes with which most people are familiar, Marzano tomatoes are thinner and pointier in shape. The flesh is much thicker with fewer seeds, and the taste is much stronger, more sweet and less acidic. Many people[who?] describe the taste as bittersweet, like high-quality chocolate. Because of their high quality and origins near Naples, San Marzano tomatoes have been designated as the only tomatoes that can be used for Vera PizzaNapoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza).[2]

Image(San Marzano Tomatoes)

So, the moral of the story is:  Hmmm… Well, there is no moral, I really just wanted to talk about tomatoes.  Amo dei pomodori!

PS. You say “tomaahto, I say pomodoro!

*Recommended book on the history of the tomato in Italy:

Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy, by David Gentilcore

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Vats of sauce, tiramisu, cannoli and pizzele’s: My food continuum

I don’t quite remember when my relationship with tomatoes began, but my earliest memories were around 4 or 5, watching my Italian aunt cook bucket-loads of sauce.  My aunt was the dearest soul on the planet–clearly a favorite aunt.  She was silly (every kid loved her), incredibly fun, generous, lively, and a great cook.  She never really seemed like an adult to me.  Perhaps it was the fact that she stood only 4′ 11″ tall.  However, as short as she was, she was near as wide.  If oompa loompa’s had been written about back then, I am sure that I would have assumed her to share their DNA.  What I didn’t know until I was in my late 40’s, is that my aunt had horrible food allergies.  In addition to obesity and food allergies, she also had a lot of rashes, which were also as a result of her food allergies.  Sadly, she never did deal with any of these issues.  It then was no surprise that she ended up with diabetes and lived in a continual down-hill health spiral until her death.

I frequently spent the night at her and my uncle’s house.  You name it, she had it, not only was her pantry filled to overflowing, they had a lot of money, no children (I was like her kid), and she didn’t seem to know the word, “No.” Oh yea, it was my favorite place to be!

The truth is, I learned how to cook Italian gravy (pasta sauce) and Italian desserts from my aunt.  While my father was an even better cook than her, she had that motherly patience to walk me through the process in the kitchen. Year after year, month after month I would hang out with my aunt and learn traditional Italian cooking–Chicago style.

Unlike my parents, my aunt was a queen at making famous Italian desserts like: Tiramisu, cannoli’s and pizzelle’s, and she made them frequently.  Tiramisu, also known as “Tuscan Trifle,” the dessert was initially created in Siena, in the northwestern Italian province of Tuscany. The occasion was a visit by Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici III, in whose honor the concoction was dubbed zuppa del duca (the “duke’s soup”). The former duke brought the dessert back with him to Florence. In the 19th Century, zuppa del duca became popular among the English intellectuals and artists who lived there Consequently, it is also known as zuppa Inglese. They took the dessert to England, where its popularity grew. Zuppa del duca eventually made its way to Treviso, just northwest of Venice, in the northeastern province of Veneto. Treviso is best know for its canals, frescoes and Tiramisu.  Of course, it gradually made its way to the United States via Italian immigrants.  Traditionally, Tiramisu is a pudding-like dessert, usually consisting of sponge cake (ladyfingers) dipped in a liqueur, then layered with grated chocolate and decadently rich custard.  Originally, the custard was somewhat loose, but it has changed over the years.  In fact, there are numerable variations on a theme.

I honestly did not have a favorite of these desserts, but the pizzele is probably the least rich and least fattening, since it doesn’t have any custard or creme filling.

Cannoli are actually a traditional Sicilian dessert, originating in Palermo.  My family is not Sicilian, but  hails from Campobasso, which is located in the Molise region of the Italy.  At one time Compobasso was a part of two mountainous regions (Abruzzi and Molise) that were joined as an administrative district under the name Abruzzi e Molise but now separated, extend from high in the Apennines to the Adriatic coast.  However, cannoli’s have become a very popular Italian dessert.  These little deep-fried shells, filled with a mixture of eggs, sugar, ricotta cheese and chocolate were a temptation to all who tasted them.

Pizzele’s (Italian wafers) were a common mainstay in my aunts cookie jar.  The name comes from the Italian word, “Pizze,” which means round and flat.  In some parts of Italy, especially among the upper class, the irons would be made with the family crest on them, and would be passed down to each generation.  While I don’t have an iron with our family crest on it, I did get my grandmother’s iron, and made these on special occasions and holiday’s for my own children, family and friends.

Pizzele
So…whenever I stayed with my aunt and uncle, my aunt and I primarily hung-out in the kitchen making vats of tomato sauce for a wide array of Italian pasta dishes and baking rich Italian desserts.  Julia Child wrote about “The Joy of Cooking,” but my aunt was Julia Child x 100!
Keep in mind, I was (as I am now) allergic to wheat, corn, dairy, etc. According to my allergist, you never really grow out of chronic food allergies.  So, once again, the foods I consumed were setting the stage for weight gain, rashes, immune system issues, and hormone imbalance.  “If only” I Knew then what I know now…things would have been played out MUCH differently.
I recently came across an article online called, “Are Your Food Allergies Making You Fat?  It described so many of the things that I’ve gone through to a T.  Dr. Mark Hyman reveals that food allergies and inflammation cause obesity.  Food allergies cause digestive disorders and inflammation.  It’s a vicious cycle. He suggests the following three steps:
  1. Try an elimination diet for 3 weeks. Cut out the most common food allergens, including gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, yeast, and peanuts. Some people are sensitive to soy, so you can also cut that out.
  2. Eat a whole-foods, plant-based, high-fiber diet. This is essential to feed the good bugs in your gut and to provide the nutrients you need to functional optimally.
  3. Take probiotics daily to boost the healthy bacteria in your gut. Look for those that contain 10 billion CFU of bifidobacteria species and lactobacillus species. Choose from reputable brands.
Essentially, this is precisely what I did when I first found out that I had chronic food allergies.  I eliminated the foods not just for 3 weeks, but for a full year.  Because I went through allergy testing, I knew what I was allergic to, so there was no guessing game.
Hence, my Italian diet was a culprit for ill-health.  It’s not hard to know that desserts like:  Tiramisu, cannoli’s and/or pizzele’s are not healthy, but pasta?  Tomato sauce? Steak?  Cheese?  Bread?  The list seemed endless.
Tiramisu
Of course, the big question in my mind was, “What in heck do I replace all of this good-tasting food with?  What was left?  My journey had only began… Now 10 years later, I am still on the road to redemption.

“One should eat to live, not live to eat.” – Moliere

Cannoli