I’m five years old, barefoot in the backyard with my dad, picking tomatoes. They grow up the thin wire cage like they’re reaching for something. We pull the red, plump things from the vine and gather them in the basket. I pluck one and squeeze hard; it squishes and squirts red guts into my palms. I wipe my stained hands on the grass and run off to play with my sister. My dad finishes the harvest.
When my mom’s not depressed, she cooks fresh. We have caprese, garden basil on top. Bruschetta. Bread salad. When you hear the food processor whir, crushing green leaves and pine nuts, when you see the bright pesto, you know. She’s okay.
When she is depressed, I go out in the garden. I rip chives from the dirt and shove them into my mouth. I desperately want to taste something fresh.
Years later, I’m at the funeral of my boyfriend’s best friend. A little girl, about six, stands on her tiptoes and reaches for a bowl of cherry tomatoes. She grabs a fistfull and, when no one is looking, stuffs them into her pocket. She does not understand context. She doesn’t have to.
There are pictures of him at every table, the handsome young guy. He could have been a model, someone says. We eat, we listen, we grieve.
S’s sister marches around the banquet hall in black pantsuit, bottle of Maker’s Mark in hand. Red wax drips down the sides. She takes a swig. Won’t set it down. Her brother has just hurled himself in front of a train. I don’t want to hear it but do: the sound of bones crunching.
I’m twenty-three, and I see death in everything.
In another century Hernán Cortés sits on his ship, rocking violently across the Atlantic. As the angry waves roll underneath him, he considers his victories, eager to be made viceroy. He has gifts for Spain: pottery, gold, and tomatoes. He’s taken Tenochtitlan. Divided the Aztecs against themselves. Conquered. He boasts to the king about how these naive new subjects mistook him for a god. Confused him for the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl. Cortés brags about his conquest. He boasts. He lies.
When we learn about the Aztec empire, we’re taught that they’re savage. Ms. Vitale stands in front of the seventh grade class and explains how they’d rip hearts straight from the chest, they’d sacrifice their own people. She describes blood dripping down the temple. They were misguided, she says. They thought the blood would placate their god.
The bell rings. She tells us to line up for mass and carefully inspects our uniforms. We’re told to tuck our shirts in. We march single file in identical skirts. We file into the church, put the body of Christ on our tongues. We consume His flesh. We believe that we are somehow more holy.
Lycopersicum, the species epithet for tomatoes, translates from Latin to mean “Wolf Peach.” I like the contradiction. A vicious sweetness. Both things, I think, can be true.
When I was a kid I would eat onions like apples. But tomatoes I’d have to slice and salt. I couldn’t just bite in. I was afraid of the seeds. I had a vision, a childish vision, of a tomato plant growing inside my belly, tomatoes of various sizes and colors then popping out of my mouth, my nose, my ears.
After Cortés brought them back, tomatoes spread throughout Europe. Many began to fear the strange fruit. It became associated with death. That would serve Europe right: conquest turning in on itself. Well through the 18th century it was referred to as the “poison apple.” Aristocrats, having eaten tomatoes, would get sick and fall dead. They blamed the new food.
Later, they found out it was because of their plates. The plates they ate off were made of pewter. The tomatoes would absorb residual lead which the Aristocrats would ingest. They made this connection too late.
My mother was a hardened woman. Before my father strayed I imagine he pulled his heart from his chest and offered it to her, I imagine it soft and red, skin smooth as a fruit. I can see her denying him that. For years, I blamed her. I kept myself hard. Turned myself into the pit of a wolf peach.
As I got older, I could see my parents from new, heightened angles. I learned the language to describe my mother: depressed. As I got older, I also began to understand the duality of men: their softness, their cruelty. A vicious sweetness. How, at times, they can see the body as conquest. How they can boast. How they lie.
In the late 1700s, after tomatoes had spread throughout Europe, peasants in Naples began putting tomatoes on top of their flatbreads, the first rudimentary pizzas. The fruit’s popularity rose. Now, Americans eat about 100 acres of pizza each day. Most of the tomato sauce used has been sitting in cans with chemicals, sugars and dyes, so far removed from a life on the vine.
Our language, when talking about colonialism, turns sexual. Penetrate. Virgin land. Our metaphors bind sex to violence, our words remind us how little history values consent.
Italian herbalist Pietro Andrea Matthioli classifies the tomato as mandrake. Mandrakes, a perceived aphrodisiac, have an association with love that dates back to biblical times. In Genesis 30:14, the son of Jacob and Leah stumbles upon a mandrake while walking out in the field. Rachel, Jacob’s second wife, infertile, envious, desires the root. She takes it for herself. And years later, miraculously, she gives birth.
The root is hallucinogenic, a narcotic. With a high enough dose, it can knock the user unconscious. In ancient times, patients were fed mandrake before surgery. It was used, too, to treat melancholy, convulsions, and mania. In high enough quantity, it can induce delirium. Madness. According to folklore, when the root is dug up, it screams. Anyone who hears it’s piercing cry is killed. Associated with mandrakes, the red juicy bulbs took on the name “The Love Apple.” The name in Italian, Pomodoro, translates to “Golden Apple.” The fruit from El Dorado. The fruit of many names.
I’m eleven when I hear the words. Postpartum depression. Seasonal affective. They seem broad, empty strokes. Ineffective. Unable to convey the real reasons my mom, at times, wasn’t herself. It makes more sense when I hear her at dinner, over glasses of wine, explain to her friends. “I never wanted kids. Never. Still don’t,” she tells Cheryl. I stab at my broccoli. Keep my eyes down. “But it was a deal breaker for him.”
I’m even older when I get attuned to the complications behind my parent’s relationship. It is confusing, for a child. We want categories, labels, easily digestible sets. What to do when a fruit behaves like something else? What to do with contradiction?
I’m twenty years old, in Mondovì with my aunt. We’re at the farmers market and her tongue flicks fast in Italian. She bargains for a crate of San Marzanos. The town is small and so old, streets cobbled with stone. I feel proud to be connected to something so ancient, even if not by blood. She points to a decrepit building in the center of the piazza, the third floor apartment where my uncle was born years ago on a wooden floor. No doctors. They cut the cord with a kitchen knife. We drive home through the hills, through vineyards and farms. When we get to the house, she won’t let me help cook. She doesn’t say why, but I suspect my American hands are too clumsy.
My childhood memories center around our backyard tomatoes, making Gazpacho with my father. I can picture us so clearly at the kitchen counter, blending home-grown tomatoes with peppers and cucumbers and salt. This was our thing, me and my dad, every summer. My mother reminds me that it was her recipe, her soup. We co-opted the recipe, claimed it as our own.
In 1893 the gavel swings and the decision is made: tomatoes are declared vegetables. The verdict is reached by the Supreme Court, Nix v. Hedden. An 1883 tariff had put a 10% duty on imported veggies. Meaning, with tomato a fruit, that farmers in the Bahamas could send up love apples at no cost, killing trade for those in the north. The Supreme Court didn’t care about science. Didn’t care about technical definitions. They were looking at what would benefit them. The tomato— savory, not sweet, served with dinner, not dessert— ostensibly operated as vegetable. The order became official. Imported tomatoes were taxed. Trade, inside the states, boomed.
The United States profited from classification. From division along arbitrary lines. Labels meant profit.
Marriage, too, is a legal institution, strictly defined. Somebody profits. I want to know who. I don’t know how to find myself in the push for labels, for monogamy, man and wife. When I tell my sister I might be polyamorous, she looks at me funny.
Botanically, technically, tomatoes are fruits: a berry— flesh and seeds, the ovary of a flowering plant. They resist binaries, being monoecious, male and female, together: whole. Dicots, they grow as a series of branching stems, all connecting back to the vine. All connected. The bulbous red things are pubescent, too, meaning they grow hairs that, when placed in the dirt, can grow into vines, generating new lines, new connections.
In the small town of Buñol, Valencia, Spain, there is an annual tomato street-fight. The people hoard ammunition; they wait; the sound of the firecracker indicates: begin. Townspeople and strangers launch the tomates, the town becoming a splattering of red, of seeds and guts. Each year, for an hour, they engage in this ceremony, hurling love apples at one another. When the aggression dies down, the hoses come in to power-wash the streets and rinse away all the red. And after all this, the town ends up surprisingly clean. The citric acid burns through the surface, making everything sterile.
The tomato, technically, belongs to the Solanaceae, the nightshade family. A family that looms large, father to 3,000 species. Most of them poisonous. Some, though— the outcasts— are edible. Eggplants, chiles, potatoes, tomatoes. All siblings, close to poison.
When I’m nine years old, we stop growing tomatoes. We still keep basil in the backyard but no longer use it— mom says the pesto is too rich, it upsets her stomach. It’s too much energy to cook. We switch to Eggo’s. Hot Pockets. I learn to crave the processed.
It’s around this time my dad starts to drift. He takes the late train back from the city. We see him less. This summer it’s my sister who helps me drill holes in the lid of my jar, to let the bugs I catch breathe. I show my mom the blinking butt of my lightning bug. She’s not fascinated. My aunt flies over from Italy, offers to cook. She turns her nose up at our frozen food but says nothing. American ovens have become foreign to her. She sets the temperature too high and the whole house fills with smoke.
I turn eight years old. I don’t understand what a metaphor is. But standing in that house with the ringing alarm, the clouds of smoke, my mother in tears, I think: this means something.
Aiden Baker lives in South Florida, where she teaches, writes, and sweats. She is currently working towards her MFA in Fiction at Florida Atlantic University. You can find her work in the Ninth Letter Online, Orca, Variant Lit, and elsewhere.
Image by Hannah Howell