East of Normal

You say ‘tomato,’ I say ... What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you all throw tomatoes at me?

That was the original lyric. Ringo refused to sing it. At the time, it wasn’t definite that the Beatles would never perform live again, and one of the facets of their shows is that crazed fans very often threw things at the band, especially jelly beans, because the Beatles had said in an interview that their favorite candy was jelly babies, which are actually much softer than jelly beans. Can you imagine getting hit in the eye with a jelly bean while crooning “All My Loving”? Or with your mouth wide-open, a jelly bean shoots right down your throat, aspirates into your left lung, inflames air sacs, morphs into pneumonia, fevers, coma, and death in an Omaha Holiday Inn. (BUT, since you’re bigger than Jesus, you rise again on the third day and finish the tour.) So Ringo, half-naked, crazed on acid, smoking two cigarettes at once, and digging his fingernails into the studio wall, demanded a lyric change, since he could just see himself winding up being pelted with tomatoes at shows. It was a wise move. The replacement was a much better lyric.
     Botanically, the tomato is a berry. It grows on a vine, it contains an ovary — I don’t know who’s — and the seeds of a flowering plant. But it is actually termed a “culinary vegetable,” because its sugar content is much lower than what we would consider a fruit and it is cooked into savory meals. In New York City in 1885, an argument in an Irish bar over the It’s a fruit! No! It’s a vegetable! matter spilled into the street and touched off the so-called “Tomato Riot” that lasted four days, killed over 7,000 people, and caused $40 million in damages. The vine itself is known (fittingly) as the “tomato plant,” or in Latin, Solanum lycopersicum, which is also the title of a papal encyclical on foot care delivered by Pius II in 1136 AD.
     The tomato is so closely identified with Italian cuisine that one might be surprised to learn it is not indigenous to Europe. The first tomatoes were brought from the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes in 1521 and it was called tomatl, leading historians to believe that Welshmen were involved in the expedition because who else would put incompatible consonants together without a vowel. In Europe, it came to be named pomi d’oro, or “golden apples.” It was a much better, more lyrical name.
     Prior to the tomato’s entrance onto the European table, Italian pizza was a matter of drenching the dough in olive oil and plopping anchovies on it. (It was unfortunate that they had to wait 200 more years for the Altoid.) Nevertheless, the Italian tomato-less pizza was widely popular and most were delivered within 20 minutes.
     This is the 14th year of East Nashville’s Tomato Art Fest. The Oxford American and Southern Living have given it high marks, and it has been voted “Best Festival” in the Nashville Scene many times over its lifespan. It was the brainchild of gallery owners Meg and Bret MacFadyen, who over the years had amassed a huge collection of tomato-related attire with no place and time to wear it all. The result was to discover that so many Nashvillians and people from surrounding areas also have intense desires to express a lycopene sartorial flavor. The costumes get cleverer every year. Some of them are so good they ripen in the sun.
     The MacFaydens also sought to improve relations between the tomato and citizens who are put off by the world’s largest tomato, a bloviating narcissistic gargantuan beefsteak with incomprehensible straw-colored hair who stiffs contractors.
     We salute you, fair tomato, a uniter, not divider, and thank you for your service to our country.