Tomatoes are so much more than veggie-things that you can slice up and toss into your salad. Tomato sauce is an essential ingredient for some of the greatest foods around: Spaghetti, lasagna, pizza, and many kinds of Mexican dishes. Go to any American restaurant and you just might be hard pressed to find a meal that doesn’t contain tomatoes in some form or other. Even hamburgers usually come with a slice or two of tomato.

When you take all that into account, it might be a little hard to believe that the tomato was once thought to be poisonous. Tomatoes were grown in Europe not as food, but as a curious sort of ornamental plant. The fact that the tomato is a member of the nightshade family might have something to do with it, but there is another compelling explanation as to why Europeans were convinced that the tomato was deadly: The wealthy often ate meals with pewter flatware. The high acid content of the tomato had a way of leeching deadly lead poison out of the pewter.

Many people have no problem thinking of the tomato as a vegetable, even though it is most definitely a fruit from a botanical standpoint. Most fruits have a kind of sweetness that make them enjoyable treats by themselves, but we don’t generally think of buying a whole tomato just to eat it as if it were an apple or a plum. And anyway, how many desserts can you name that have tomatoes in them?

Tomatoes not only make your dishes delicious, they are also very nutritious. (Try saying that five times fast.) Tomatoes are a great source of vitamin C and vitamin A. Tomatoes also contain a powerful and beneficial antioxidant known as Lycopene. Studies have shown that the more tomatoes you eat, the higher your resistance to cancer. Cooked tomatoes are thought to be even better for you than when they’re raw, which is an added bonus. Apparently heating up tomatoes releases even more of that lycopene goodness.

Gardeners who aspire to grow their own fruits and vegetables most often start out with the tomato, which is one of the easiest plants to grow. Tomatoes require full sun and lots of watering, and they also need to be staked or placed in tomato cages to keep them upright. The best varieties for the beginning tomato gardener include the Early Girl, the Jolly Hybrid, and the Celebrity- all of which are fairly disease resistant.

Now the next time you enjoy an Italian meal, you can impress all your friends with everything you know about tomatoes.

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