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


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.



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.

I was therefore slightly horrified when the server instead set before me a plate covered with large slices of beefsteak tomatoes. The fact that they were accompanied by slabs of buffalo mozzarella and generous splashes of balsamic vinegar did little to ease my dismay. I could clearly see tomato goo. But I could hardly send the dish back—I had ordered it, even if I hadn't read the description closely. I decided that if I could create bites that were two parts cheese to one part tomato, I just might be able to chew my way through an acceptable portion of the meal.

And I did. I even kind of enjoyed the sweetness of the tomatoes played off against the tanginess of the vinegar. By the end of the lunch, more than half the salad was gone and I was reconsidering my tomato antipathy. In baby steps, I continued to add tomatoes to my repertoire. The next time we ordered the high-end pizza that replaces tomato sauce with chunks of fresh tomato, I left a few on instead of picking them off. I stopped substituting tomato puree when a recipe called for crushed tomatoes, and I found that the texture no longer bothered me. Then, one day last summer, I stood in a friend's kitchen while she finished preparing dinner. She had purchased some cherry tomatoes at a local farmers market that afternoon and set out a bowl of them for snacking—a bite-sized rainbow of fruity yellows, oranges, and reds. I popped one in my mouth and stopped. It didn't taste like any tomato I'd ever had. This was fresh, a crisp bite with a small punch of sweetness inside.

I couldn't stop eating the miniature tomatoes that night and haven't looked back. Now when I see a Caprese salad on the menu at a restaurant whose devotion to freshness I trust, it's my favorite way to start a meal. My new go-to quick dinner is pasta tossed with diced mozzarella and some shallots, pancetta, and cherry tomatoes that have been sautéed in olive oil. Smoked tomatoes have transformed my salsa-eating habits, and I now greedily scoop up the rich mixture with my chips.

Of course, getting used to a food doesn't mean you have to like it in every situation. I still think a big watery slice of tomato can ruin a perfectly good burger or sandwich. And gazpacho, with its cold floating tomato chunks, remains a yet-to-be-acquired taste. But in most ways and with most dishes, I am a convert.

You say tomato, I say tomato—that's not important. As long as the tomato is fresh, count me in.