The thing is, most people do not give food the respect it deserves. We take it for granted. We deep-fry it, we cover it with fattening sauces, and we abuse it. But the truth is, food has changed the world. It’s won wars and changed political and economic policies. For example, the tomato.
Ah, you say. How could this fruit impact war? How could this vegetable change the export/import policies of this nation? Which is it, a fruit or a vegetable?
As the Civil War began, the war department hired canning companies (just over a decade old) to provide canned goods to the Union troops. This would be the first time that many of the men from the North ever ate tomatoes, much less canned. More importantly were the short- and long-term economic effects as the canning companies in the South were shut down. The southern farms that had once supplied the factories with tomatoes were suddenly left without a system for production and distribution. Meanwhile, farms in Ohio, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Indiana thrived.
For over a century, historians would discuss how ill-prepared the Confederate Army had been, especially in the very critical area of food supply. Confederate soldiers were literally starving. Letters from Confederate soldiers tell how the fight often became more about acquiring food than defending the Southern cause. Cutting into a Union supply line and commandeering their food was top priority. And, getting a hold of canned tomatoes was considered a real prize for the hungry Confederate soldiers. After the war, tomato cans could be found littered across the country on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
Many wrote home that it was a war more about tomatoes and when troops went home, the demand for tomatoes — canned or otherwise — soared. Canning factories could not produce enough to meet the needs of the people. By 1879, more than 19 million cans of tomatoes were manufactured annually and by 1896, ketchup was declared the national condiment.
To keep up with the demands of the American people, canning factories and other tomato-producing companies turned to Caribbean farmers for their products. Farmers in Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Florida Keys and throughout the Caribbean were exporting tomatoes by the tons at a cheaper cost than American farmers.
To protect the American farmers from this competition, the U.S. Congress passed the Tariff Act of 1883, levying a 10 percent duty on imported vegetables, including tomatoes. But businessman John Nix suddenly found himself with a much higher duty under this new law when he imported tomatoes into New York from the West Indies. Determined that he should not have to pay such a fine, he claimed that the tomato was actually a fruit. It was an argument that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1887. According to the definitions in Webster’s Dictionary, Worchester’s Dictionary, and the Imperial Dictionary, along with the expert witness of well-known botanists and/or seeds men, the tomato fit the description of a fruit rather than a vegetable — but the justices countered that anything that was served in a soup or with a main course had to be a vegetable.
Scientists did not, nor do they today, consider this decision to be based on anything scientific. The definitions are clear: The tomato is a fruit.
But something else is also clear. Before we blame President George H. Bush for starting the aggressive importing of all things “made in China,” know that the tradition of selling out our own American workers in exchange for better profit margins and that smudging the lines between fact and fiction (what is fruit and vegetable) to tax evade began a century ago with the ripe ‘ol tomato.
Now residing in “the nicest city in Texas,” Alexandra Allred is the author of numerous books, including White Trash, Damaged Goods and the Allie Lindell series. Visit her website, www.alexandratheauthor, or Twitter @alexandraallred but always check out her column the WDL as she ponders all things Waxahachie and beyond its borders.