Who's Afraid of the Big Bad ... Tomato?

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Mr. T in DC/flickr


I was all set to dive headfirst into this project to vanquish my picky-eating ways—really, I was. But then I got pregnant. When the mere thought of food makes you unbearably queasy and when retreating to bed for three months with a box of cereal bars and a pot of ginger tea seems like a rational plan, it's not really the right moment to start eating foods that turn your stomach in the best of times.

So I decided to start out a bit more slowly, by figuring out how I learned to like a once-despised food: the tomato.

Although the tomato did not become a standard part of European and American diets until the mid- to-late nineteenth century, it now ranks second only to the potato as the most popular vegetable in the United States. (Yes, I know the tomato is technically a fruit, but in the food world it tends to be compared to vegetables.) That makes it a nearly impossible food to avoid, although I mostly succeeded for 35 years.

When I tell people I only recently started eating tomatoes, they are often shocked. "What about tomato sauce? You didn't eat ketchup??" Don't be silly. Those aren't tomatoes. Those are tomato products. A grilled cheese sandwich dipped in Campbell's tomato soup was my favorite lunch as a child. We had spaghetti with a jar of tomato sauce for dinner at least once a week. And ketchup was practically considered its own food group. We ate it on fish sticks and on scrambled eggs. My sister even added it to mashed potatoes. (She's always been weird.)

But those were smooth preparations in which the tomato was cooked down—its flavor altered and made more full-bodied—and blended into a silky tomato essence. The tomato itself posed a textural hurdle.

I dreaded selecting a sandwich from a lunch buffet, only to find the slimy seeds and jelly of a tomato contaminating the filling. Or biting into a warm taco and experiencing the incongruent temperature of a cold—or, even less pleasant, lukewarm—tomato chunk.

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TheNickster/flickr

On those rare occasions when I decided to give tomatoes a try, spearing a slice in my salad, I was inevitably rewarded with a watery mouthful that didn't taste like much of anything. When a tomato ripens fully on the vine, it acquires a complex mix of sugar and acid compounds that burst with flavor. But most commercial tomatoes these days are picked when they're green, packed in a warehouse, and gassed with ethylene, which stimulates the fruits to redden even though they aren't yet ripe. The process makes tomatoes easier to transport and gives them that appealing fire-engine red color. The end product, however, is bland and, for a tomato-phobe, often not worth the effort.

So for years I ate around tomatoes. Chunky pasta sauce? Slide the tomato chunks to one side and proceed. Salsa? Dip the chip vertically so it's just coated with liquid without scooping up any of the tomato mixture. Bruschetta? Take advantage of the fact that when you bite into the crunchy bread, loose bits of tomato—oops!—fall off harmlessly onto the plate.

My tomato strategies worked reasonably well, until I ran into the most common type of situation in which I'm forced to reckon fully with a food I do not want to eat: social pressure. A few years ago, I met several of my former high school teachers for lunch at a bistro in Ann Arbor. Not feeling well, but not wanting to draw attention to the fact, I decided to order a simple salad. I glanced quickly at the menu and ordered the Caprese, assuming it was a salad of greens with tomatoes that I would eat around as usual.

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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