The Mighty Tomato

by Dana Kester-McCabe

When you think of quintessential Delmarva crops, corn and soybeans come to mind, but the tomato is just as important.

Certainly strawberries, peaches, and even pumpkins are what we see on roadsides throughout the growing season. But the mighty tomato has had as great an impact on the diet, culture, and the economy of Delmarva as any other crop.

It seems funny to refer to the tomato as a berry but that is essentially what it is. A very big berry. The tomato vine (Solanum lycopersicum) is a member of the nightshade family. It is technically a fruit but it is used as a vegetable. Believe it or not the venerated U.S. Supreme Court has actually weighed in on the distinction. In the late 19th century the state of New York had an import tax on vegetables but not fruit. When they tried to impose taxes on tomatoes importers responded by taking them to court. The case went all the way to the top with the Supreme Court unanimously deciding that because of its common usage as a vegetable it should be taxed as one.

There are many varieties of tomatoes available year round but fresh locally grown tomatoes found at your nearby roadside stand from June through September are the best. Though the big deep red beefsteak tomato probably remains the champion, in recent years heirloom tomato varieties have become very popular. They come in just about every color of the rainbow except blue. These are touted for the intensity of their flavor and nutrition. Of course there are those who say heirloom seeds saved and passed down from year to year and generation to generation are not as desirable as those that come from more currently hybridized plants. This is the heart of the debate about all genetically manufactured crops which is essentially what all hybrid plants are in some form or fashion.

For the tomato gardener the question is answered by their own experience. Tomatoes that get a the proper amount of sun and water, and which are grown in really good soil, taste the best no matter what variety they are. The attentive gardener can have as productive vines planting them in the ground as they do when planted in containers. Beginning gardeners often have their first success growing the versatile tomato.

The tomato's history as a plant cultivated for human consumption has its beginnings in Peru where archeologists have found evidence of its use as far back as 500BC. Over time the tomato was grown and eaten throughout Southern and Central America. When Europeans invaded Mexico, tomato seeds were among the plunder which they brought back home with them. After some initial superstitious fears about tomatoes being poisonous, the tomato became a culinary sensation. Some call them "love apples". There are too many dishes to name but Spanish Paella and Italian tomato sauces and their many variations became dietary staples especially in the Mediterranean climate where tomatoes grew voraciously. Tomato seeds came back to the Americas again with the colonists who grew tomatoes in their gardens.

By the mid 1850's canning plants dotted the peninsula for the commercial preservation and transport of seafood and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Things really took off when cheap tin cans became widely available from plants in Baltimore. In the early 20th century there were probably hundreds of canneries here with a large concentration in Wicomico County. Cambridge once promoted itself as "the tomato canning capitol of the world." In 1912 even Ocean City had a cannery with tomatoes being delivered by barge for processing.

The owners of these canning operations made great fortunes and rose in the ranks of society and politics locally and beyond. In the beginning the workers in those plants were poor whites and African American slave descendants. As immigration increased Italians and Slavic workers drifted out of the big cities to find work and less crowded living conditions here on the Eastern Shore.

At the height of Delmarva's canning industry there were as many as 15,000 cannery workers. Some made as much as $5 a day, which for the time was a decent wage. This all began to decline in the 1950's with competition from other warm weather states with longer growing seasons. Labor conflicts and advances in refrigerated shipping brought about a consolidation of canning. Delmarva's smaller local operations were squeezed out of business. Sadly a number of those long abandoned plants still pose potential environmental concerns according to the EPA.

Now most of the canned tomato products we use come from California, Italy, and beyond. Tomatoes are still a cash crop here on Delmarva but not many farmers want to take them on. Though there are some mechanical solutions available, picking tomatoes for the most part still requires human hands because of their delicate nature. Immigrant laborers who do this work come mostly from Latin America. It is interesting that the cuisine they've brought with them really brings the tomato full circle. Variations on their traditional dishes like salsa are as common place in restaurants as ketchup on hamburgers and French fries, or pizza. Tomatoes are in fact found in cuisines all around the world.

One of the reasons that tomatoes are so widely loved is that for every fancy dish you can make with them there is one that requires no particular skill at all. And, really, there is nothing like that first fresh ripe tomato of the summer. I've known some people who will eat them like an apple. No slicing or dicing just a great big bite out of the middle letting the juice running down their chin. My favorite summer tomato recipe is simply to take corn cut from the cob after it has been blanched and cooled and mix it with diced tomatoes and minced shallots. A splash of olive oil and ordinary vinegar with a little salt and pepper is the perfect summer salad. If you like things spicy add your favorite minced pepper and a few sprigs of cilantro.

The mighty tomato continues to prevail as an important part of our diet so every summer it is celebrated in Vienna, Maryland at the Great Eastern Shore Tomato Festival. On the surface this may simply seem to be your typical country fair with games and food revolving around a tomato theme. And it is that. But it is hosted by the Dorchester Historical Society so throughout the day you can take in cooking demonstrations and presentations on the history of the tomato and the canning industry here on Delmarva.

Get links to locally produced food sources on our Living Coastal page:


4th Annual Great Eastern Shore Tomato Festival
Waterfront Area - Vienna, Maryland

The Canning Industry in Delmarva
by Harold W. Hurst - Tidewater Times

The case against heirloom tomatoes
by Brendan Borrell - Scientific American

Nix v. Hedden
Fruit or Vegetable Controversy

Encyclopedia of Life


Worcester County - Maryland's Arcadia
by Dr. Reginald V. Truitt and Dr. Millard G. Les Callette 1977
Worcester County Historical Society