If email existed in 1900, today you’d probably receive an email from your great aunt or elderly mother that announced in the subject line, You Can Now Eat Tomatoes Without Fear of Death. This would be circulating (or re-circulating, pulled out of the archives of cyber dust as emails are wont to do) because Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson from Salem County, NJ, had consumed a certain quantity of tomatoes on this date in 1820 to disprove the lingering fear that tomatoes were poisonous. Your great aunt’s email (after 14 FWD: headings, each indented more than the one before it) would tell the story that Johnson ate two pounds of tomatoes before twenty spectators in the public square of Salem County, NJ. But that email would conflict with the one your mother forwarded that stated he ate a bushel in front of 20,000 people on the top steps of the county courthouse in Salem, MA. So you’d go to Snopes.com and check it out and maybe find out that no one really knows (the story didn’t even appear until about 90 years after it supposedly happened). Some say he ate them in September, which makes a lot more sense if you’ve ever tried to grow tomatoes (which I’ll tell you about in a sec) and you know that in June they’re mostly just yellow flowers with a glimmer in their eyes. You’d google it and maybe find out why people even thought it was poisonous in the first place (early explorers didn’t trust the nightshade). You might run across the fact that the US Supreme Court, in all its scientific prowess, decided it was a vegetable in 1893 (before that it was a fruit because, botanically speaking, before 1893 they were the ripened, seed-bearing ovaries of the plant. But the SC said it, so they must not be ovaries anymore.) I’m thinking the tomato lobby, after a dismal harvest for a couple of years, must have spread the story as a marketing ploy to get more people consuming tomatoes. So from all my research, the best I can tell is on this day in 1820, nothing really happened with tomatoes.
When my kids were two, I had tomatoes. An early frost had snuck up on me (it wasn’t June for sure). Having four two-year-olds, I didn’t get to the crop quite in time and they spent a night out in the cold (the tomatoes, not the kids). So the next day, I gathered all the fruits (take that Supreme Court) and put them on the kitchen table to sort and figure which could be salvaged. Then I had the silly idea I’d take a shower (you know, one of those once-a-week luxuries some lucky moms get). The kids seemed so content looking at their board books in the living room, I knew it was the right time. I put gates up in the doorways and in front of the basement steps (14 of them; this will be significant in a second) so they’d be safe (the kids, not the tomatoes). When I immerged from the shower (which really only took about 120 seconds, because any mom will tell you, that’s just how we learn to roll) I heard those ominous, terrible, heart-stopping—giggles. They were having fun, so that meant something was really wrong.
In the kitchen, where my dozens of tomatoes had been 120 seconds before, now about 2 remained. The giggles were coming from the top of the steps. With trepidation, I pick up my pace and headed there. (Cue minor chords and sudden dissonant blast.)
Do you know what fun it can be to watch a frost-bitten tomato sail down 14 steps and splat (or bounce) to the bottom? Do you know how far a tomato can explode? Guess what. I do. I even know what a few dozen partially frozen tomatoes look like at the bottom (and along the walls on the way down) after being flung down the steps over the top of the gate by four industrious, giggling toddlers. Really, I know that. Guess what else. You don’t want to know what that looks like. Or how sad it feels to see a summer’s worth of planting, growing, watering, and pampering turned into tomato sauce down the stairwell. Or how long it takes to clean up.
But at least you can know, now, that they aren’t poisonous and you’re free to eat them at will. Just beware of toddlers and stairways when you do.
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