RESEARCH: Tomatoes

tomatoesI almost got tripped up by tomatoes.

When I was creating the world of DIVIDED LOYALTIES, I thought I considered everything. I went through antique photos of clothes and uniforms. I drove through the countryside near Sharpsburg so I knew what Maureen saw as she marched from home to hospital and back. I read an article (thanks Arbutus Library research librarian). And all of this was for the little details.

For the big stuff, I went to Google (natch!) and books by Shelby Foote, Ken Burns and Terry Reimer, the books, artifacts and experts at the Maryland Historical Society, the National Civil War Medicine Museum and plenty more.

Then, finally, I handed over the manuscript to a Civil War fan who kindly has gone through it looking for anachronisms.

The one that threw me? Tomatoes.

I live in an area where every garden has at least one tomato plant. I’m no farmer but I grow tomatoes. So I thought Maureen’s mother Kate would have tomatoes in her kitchen garden.

Then I got this note: Tomato plants — were tomatoes cultivated then?

What? Of course they were….weren’t they?

Well, yes and no.

Tomatoes are related to the deadly nightshade. That all by itself made them suspect. The British were especially suspicious. If they were grown at all, they were grown as a decoration. Maureen and her family are Irish; would they have thought as the English did — about tomatoes anyway?

Though tomatoes have been cultivated in the rest of the world for ages, including in North America, they were only beginning to appear in kitchen gardens. Hey Thomas Jefferson grew them; they had to be all right. New Orleans cooks used them; but their influence was French, not British.

At that time, most tomatoes were cherry, grape or pear tomatoes then, according to Modern Farmer. Bigger tomatoes were ridged, rarely with the smooth round skin we look for now. Reading this made me think of the misshapen, very expensive heirloom tomatoes we prize today.

In 1850, Alexander Livingston started a seed company. Though he was a fan of tomatoes he was warned about their poisonous nature. Nevertheless, he worked on perfecting a smooth hybrid, which he introduced in 1870. Thank you, Mr. Livingston.

Soldiers in the Civil War ate them whether they liked them or not. (Have you read accounts of what soldiers ate? Ick. Tomatoes probably gained a lot of converts.) There were plenty of canneries by this time and they were happy to sell cans of tomatoes to the Army.

But the question remained: would there have been tomatoes in Kate’s kitchen garden? I wasn’t sure. So I pulled up all those tomatoes and planted squash in their place. Everybody likes squash. They are hardy and store well.

Gotta get those details right.

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