Here we examine the historical and botanical make-up of tomatoes, the importance of Africans in the forming of southern cuisine, and details about the publication of cook books in the American south.
America’s Food Heritage
Our typical American cuisine was inspired by the familiar recipes brought over by English, French, Spanish, and Dutch settlers, as well as those of Scotch-Irish and German colonists, who followed these early immigrants; all of this European influence merged with the available foods of the Native Americans present on this continent. 1
Southern Cuisine Developed by Africans
African slaves played a broad part in fashioning our distinctive southern cookery. The mistresses of these slaves initially taught them-our people-receipts recalled from these mistresses’ individual heritages, as listed above; then, prized dishes were developed, with the Africans’ natural appreciation of and aptitude for cooking. These foods were used in the strong social competition among the plantations. Such delicacies, which in large part formed this region’s cuisine, were not initially compiled in books for the public, but rather closely safeguarded within each family, due to the rivalry among these established settlements. Thus, there were no Southern cook books until the first quarter of the 19th century; a few recipes from this geographic area were preserved, however, in some American cook books, mostly those published in and around Philadelphia. 2
Mrs. Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, printed in 1824, in Washington D.C., is part of the advent of cook books specializing in foods from the South. It also includes some Northern recipes, as well as a few Spanish dishes, of which our Ropa Vieja omelette is one. This promising recipe boasts of only five ingredients, one of which is the garden tomato, and just a few succinct instructions; its simplicity makes it exceptional. 3
Botanical Make-up of Tomatoes Produces a Powerful Food
In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee explains why this sweet-tart, botanical fruit tomato, which is used as a vegetable, has such great appeal. He attributes this attractiveness to the unique flavor brought about by its low sugar content-3%; other great features are its large amount of savory glutamic acid-as much as 0.3% of its weight-and its ample quantities of aromatic sulfur compounds. These two latter ingredients, present in ripe tomatoes, predispose them to complement the flavor of meats. This is because these two substances exist more commonly in animal flesh than fruits; thus, their rich presence in tomatoes allows for added taste to meat dishes. Savory glutamic acid and sulfur aromas likewise bring out great depth and complexity in sauces and other food combinations; therefore, this particular produce can even replace meat in flavoring vegan dishes. 4
American Origins of Tomatoes and their Slow Acceptance in Europe
Tomatoes originated in the west coast deserts of South America. Extensive varieties existed in Mexico, by the time Hernando Cortez and his 400 Spaniards discovered this land in 1519. The tomato was incorporated in American (and later European) cookery in various ways. At the time of Cortez’ arrival, Mexicans used thin shavings of this green, unripe fruit in many dishes; they also mixed ripe tomatoes with chillis in a sauce to top cooked beans. Subsequently, the Spaniards in Europe readily adopted this fruit in their cuisine. 5
When Francisco Pizarro began his bloody attacks in Peru in 1532, this South American land, with all its royal Incan wealth, was eating mostly a vegetarian diet of maize, potatoes (including sweet and manioc potatoes), squash, beans, peanuts, avocados, chillis, and our beloved tomato. 6
Some time later, the Italians were adding it to broths and soups, as noted by the Quaker merchant Peter Collinson in 1742. Tomato sauce for pasta followed several decades hence. 7
Britain lagged behind Italy, in accepting this item, due to their long-held mistaken viewpoint, which had originated on the Continent, connecting it with a deadly nightingshade, being it was of this same family. Not until the 20th century did the English acquired a taste for tomatoes, particularly canned tomato soup. 8
Popularity of Tomatoes Grew Slowly in the United States
North America was almost equally slow in receiving this fruit, probably due in part to these same European misconceptions; they considered it to be lacking in nourishment and substance, as well as a cause for gout. 9
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S began what was to become a wide acceptance of tomatoes, primarily due to the strong influence from the great Italian immigration then. Nevertheless, their first appearance here was when Thomas President Thomas Jefferson brought back seedlings from a diplomatic trip to Paris. There the Parisians had just accepted this “love apple”, believed to be an aphrodisiac; their acceptance directly resulted from the effect Italian cooking had on French troops during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century (see Spicy Sausages with Tomatoes & Turnips).
It is interesting to note that our third president had an extensive garden of 170 varieties of fruits and 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs; his grand kitchen utilized most of this produce, even producing ketchup for our epicurean leader, who primarily chose a vegetarian diet. Ketchup at this time, however, was a vinegar-based condiment made from such ingredients as walnuts and mushrooms, not tomatoes. 10
- Esther B. Aresty, The Delectable Past (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), p. 181.
- Ibid., pp. 182, 183, 193.
- Ibid., p. 193.
- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), pp. 329, 330.
- On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: The Three Rivers Press, 1988, 1973), p. 206.
- Ibid., p. 214.
- Ibid., p. 207.
Ropa Vieja (Omelette) Yields: 2 servings. Total prep time: 25 min. Adapted from an 1824 southern recipe found in Esther B. Aresty’s The Delectable Past (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1964).
2 lg firm ripe tomatoes, cut in eighths, seeds and juice removed
2/3 c shredded leftover chicken, ham, or beef
4 lg eggs, beaten lightly (May use 3 duck eggs, which are bigger than chicken eggs; for info on duck and chicken eggs, see Rosemary Eggs.)
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp chopped parsley, optional
Salt, to taste (Himalayan, pink, or Real Salt is critical for optimum health; an inexpensive fine grind Himalayan salt is available at Costco.)
Fresh ground pepper, to taste
Spray the optional parsley with a safe, inexpensive, effective produce spray (mix 97% distilled white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide); let sit 3 minutes: then, rinse well and chop fine.
- Cut the tomatoes in eighths, gently scoop out liquid and seeds with a spoon (it not necessary to peel the tomatoes), place in a bowl.
- Shred and measure the meat, set aside.
- Beat the eggs, only until whites and yolks are lightly blended.
- Over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a non-stick skillet; mix in meat, heating for one minute. Add tomatoes and cook for six minutes, or until mixture is hot and tomatoes are somewhat softened, stirring occasionally (see above photo).
- Reduce heat to med/low; sprinkle parsley over cooked tomatoes and meat; pour beaten eggs over this mixture, quickly distributing the meat and tomatoes evenly in eggs.
Salt and pepper generously before covering; cover and cook slowly, until eggs are set on top (see photo).
- When done, you may remove any loose pieces of skin from tomatoes that appear on top of omelette; fold it over; cut in half to serve two people.