The story of tomato is a tale of three continents, South America, Europe, and North America. The European chapter began in the 1500s when Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought unusual vegetables, of which tomato was one, back to their respective countries.
Although it is certain that the origin of Lycopersicon esculentum was South America, it was in Mexico that the tomato was probably first cultivated and plants selected based on fruit size. Therefore, seeds of tomato first taken to Europe came from Mexico after Cortez took Mexico City in 1519. It was not until 1533 that Peru and Ecuador were conquered by the Spaniards.
After introduction of the tomato into the United States, it was grown and brought to the table by Thomas Jefferson. George Washington Carver grew and recommended the tomato in an attempt to introduce the fruit into the diet among the poor in Alabama whose diets were woefully deficient in vitamins (http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu).
Most tomato plants being grown today are hybrids – the result of breeding to develop certain plant characteristics, such as stress, insect, and disease resistance and fruit characteristics, such as uniform size and coloring, extended shelf life, and firmness. Beside hybrids, there are what are called “open pollinated varieties” and within this group are the Heirloom varieties which were the primary types grown before the hybrids were introduced in the mid 1940s. One can save the seed from open pollinated varieties and obtain the same plant, but seed from hybrid fruits will not produce the same plant from which it was taken and saved. It was not until the 20th century that the tomato fruit began to be a major food, eaten directly or as an ingredient in many food products. Today, the per capita consumption of fresh tomato fruit continues to increase as the health benefits associated with its inclusion in the diet are being learned and emphasized. Today, the average American consumes about 90 pounds of tomato as fruit and tomato-containing products.
Tomato is one of the most common garden fruit grown in the United States. Commercially, China is the larger producer, followed by United States, Turkey, India and Italy. California accounts for 90% of the U.S. production and 35% of the world production. In the United States, tomato fruit production has a farm value of over 2 billion dollars.
Tomato fruit production data is being yearly reported from 144 countries. In the past 10 years, the most significant change occur-ring has been the quantity of tomatoes being greenhouse-grown from major production centers in The Netherlands, Spain, Canada, United States and Mexico. Free trade agreements among nations have allowed for the ease of movement of fruit from country to country. Accompanying this increased movement has been the shift away from the production of beefsteak (large) fruit to smaller, such as cocktail, cherry, grape and Roma. The primary concern of consumers is flavor. This has contributed to the increasing preference for the smaller-sized fruits that tend to have high flavor.
Based on the perception of high-flavored fruit, Heirloom varieties are attracting increasing attention from both home gardeners and small commercial growers for marketing in local farmer markets. The term “Heirloom varieties” was coined in the 1990’s and relates to those tomato varieties that were commonly grown prior to the 1950’s after hybrid tomato varieties were first introduced in 1945. Heirloom varieties come in a range of fruit sizes and skin colors (black, purple, brown, yellow, orange, pink, bicolor), making for a more appealing consumer product.
Fruit-on-the-vine (TOV) or “cluster tomatoes” are becoming a commonly marketed form of fruit in the United States. Growers are packaging their fruit in the most pleasing way possible. Bright red or shining, yellow colored unblemished fruit is what is being presented to the consumer. In addition, pesticide-free and/or organically grown fruit are also gaining preference among some consumers.
For fast food chains, tomato fruit of uniform size, shape, and color is the primary requirement, while gourmet chefs are looking for a variety of fruit colors, sizes (from very large to grape or cherry types), as well as a range in flavor characteristics.
Tomato varieties are roughly divided into 7 categories:
- “Slicing” or “globe” – for processing and fresh eating
- Beefsteak – large fruit for use in sandwiches
- Oxhart – range in size up to beefsteak
- Plum or paste – high solid content for use in sauce and paste
- Pear – pear-shaped, for rich gourmet paste
- Cherry – small and oblong, a variation of the plum tomatoes
- Grape – smaller and oblong variation of the plum tomato for use in salads
- Campari – bigger than cherry, smaller than plum, sweet and known for their juiciness, low in acidity, and lack of mealiness.