My favorite tomato story concerns one Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, a wealthy one-time resident of Salem County, New Jersey. It’s said that after a long journey abroad Johnson became convinced that the tomato would make an excellent cash crop in America, and he was determined to introduce it as such. Unfortunately the locals remained convinced that the tomato was poison. So, on the 26th day of September, 1820, Johnson posted a notice declaring that he would consume an entire basket of tomatoes in front of anyone who’d care to watch. Some 2,000 people turned out to witness the spectacle. On that bright sunny autumn morning Johnson strode out onto the courthouse steps, raised a tomato to his mouth and took a big juicy bite. Men gasped in horror. Women screamed and fainted. Doctors rushed to the scene…yet Johnson did nothing but smile and — occasionally — belch. It was the dawn of a bright new day.
It’s a terrific story even if no one has ever been able to corroborate it. There was, however, a real life figure from American history who was known for similar feats of daring: George Washington Carver. Carver is of course the botanist and educator best known for inventing hundreds of uses for the peanut. Yet his enthusiasms extended well beyond the simple goober.
Born into slavery in Missouri in the early 1860’s, Carver spent his life trying to help Southern farmers eek out a living on lands that had been depleted by cotton. His primary focus was training farmers to rotate their crops with plants that returned nutrients to the soil. Yet Carver was a strong advocate of agricultural diversity in general. The tomato was what you might call an “object of interest” for him. So much so that 1918 he wrote and published a paper entitled How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table. Clearly he was well accustomed to eating the things. His dirt poor and uneducated farmer audiences, on the other hand, weren’t. Which is why when, when he showed up on their land and gobbled a tomatoes down, they just about fell over.