The tomato is a warm-season crop which originated in the Americas and was taken to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. Some believe the fruit might have been taken to Europe by Christopher Columbus himself as early as the fifteenth century. Regardless of who brought it over, the tomato soon made its way into France, Italy, and North Africa.
Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit but in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court, in order to clear up a tariff dispute, ruled it a vegetable because merchants had customarily treated as such. In the United States, the tomato is the second most produced ‘vegetable’ after potatoes.
Tomatoes grown for processing are typically harvested by machine, while tomatoes for fresh consumption are hand-picked. Although China grows the most tomatoes, the United States is second, with Florida and California leading domestic production.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Florida Tomato Committee, USDA, Western Growers Association.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
Tomatoes can be classified several ways but usually fall into one of two types: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate varieties grow to a certain height and produce fruit for one cycle. Indeterminate varieties require staking/caging and grow throughout the season. Commercially, determinate varieties are more widely grown than indeterminate; the latter varieties are typically grown in home gardens.
Hundreds of varieties exist as either an heirloom or a hybrid. Heirloom seeds can be saved for the next season and are often used for generations. Hybrid tomatoes are a combination of two varieties and because the seeds may produce something different from the parent fruit, the seeds are not usually saved.
Tomatoes also have several different shapes: globe, cherry, beefsteak, and plum/pear/grape. The most common tomato at grocery stores is the globe—smooth, round, and medium in size. Cherry tomatoes, also smooth and round, range in size from one or two inches in diameter. Beefsteak tomatoes are large, wide, and somewhat flat-looking. Plum, pear, and grape tomatoes have smooth skin and are shaped as their names imply.
The USDA categorizes tomatoes as either greenhouse, fresh, cherry, or on-the-vine.
References: UC Davis Postharvest Technology website, USDA, Washington State University.