Vegetable Profiling: Tomatoes See Red

08/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Sorry" just won't cut it. Tomatoes are seeing red at being wrongly blamed as the contamination cause of a national Salmonella outbreak. Now jalapeno peppers have replaced tomatoes as the possible culprit, according to investigation updates by the FDA.

But the boycott resulted in a sales loss of an estimated $100 million and tomatoes are on high boil over the devastation to their image as a wholesome food. In a field where different varieties can take 58 to 70 days to reach maturity, an entire generation's potential has been wiped out. Now tomato varietals are speaking out.

"I wanted my life to mean something,"" said Beefsteak, who had dreams of layering a Kobe Beef burger. Now overly ripe, he expects to rot in an anonymous compost heap.

Research of foods consumed by Salmonella victims point to salsas as a link, which first put the focus on tomatoes, and then moved to other ingredients. Jalapenos, often paired with tomatoes, are now under interrogation.

Heatmaster prefers hanging out with habaneros, but the current climate has made him nervous, and his variety is best suited to hot conditions.

"Society is still critical of marriage between different vegetable groups, but anti-tomato bias simply makes it worse," he said.

Early Girl believes current vilification stems from the tomato's historic treatment as a throwaway vegetable.

"The words 'rotten' and 'tomato' have been linked since the Middle Ages. Just because they used our ancestors to pelt prisoners in stocks shouldn't mean we have to suffer guilt by association forever," said the 58-day ripener.

Acceptance of the tomato as a kitchen vegetable has been centuries-slow, according to Brandywine, an heirloom pre-1885 cultivar.

Traced to the Aztecs in 700 A.D., the tomato is believed to be native to the Americas and is a member of the nightshade family. A poisonous reputation dogged the little red edible when introduced to Europe in the 16th century, especially in Britain where the tomato was unfairly blamed for poisoning deaths. But the actual cause was from the common use of lead dinner plates.

"Our acidity caused the lead to leach from the plates. Lead poisoned the diner, but we got the blame," said Brandywine.

Eating tomatoes in the U.S. did not become common until the 19th century. Later, widespread popularity came on the heels of immigration in the early 20th century when familiarity banished fear.

"You can thank the Italians and pizza for elevating our status," said San Marzano, a spokes-tomato for the Plum Tomatoes Coalition.

In the current controversy, not all tomatoes feel negatively targeted.

"I'm thin-skinned by nature, but I don't think it was tomato bigotry. We are the main ingredient in salsas and there was a legitimate health concern," said Yellow Perfection, who works in salads.

But tons of tomatoes observe a pattern of prejudice that ripples out to other minority fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Stupice, a tomato noted for high acidity, did not mince words regarding the salsa probe.

"Look, first it was us, now it's the jalapenos. Next cilantro will go on the chopping block. Ask yourself this: why aren't the white onions being investigated?"

A Miracle Mile Tomato Splat will take place next week in Washington, D.C. to protest second-class vegetable treatment. High summer temperatures are predicted and police worry that the streets will run red.

Suzette Martinez Standring is the author of The Art of Column Writing and tomatoes are some of her best friends.