In this conversation with Craig LeHoulier, we get pretty granular about the history and science of the tomato. Of course, tomato juice is arguably the Bloody Mary’s titular ingredient, so it makes sense that we start with this base and work our way out.
What is a Tomato?
The tomato hails from the nightshade family. Botanically, its fruit is the swelled ovary of Solanum lycopersicum. Several thousand years ago, tomatoes were only about the size of a pea. However, thanks to selective breeding by ancient central/south Americans, larger, juicier, more flavorful variants were developed. By the time European explorers arrived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the tomato looked a lot like some tomatoes look today. Upon spreading to Europe and the rest of the Old World in the 1580s, the tomato became a wildly popular culinary ingredient in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines.
When Did Tomatoes Take off in the U.S.?
It took a while for tomatoes to catch on in the United States. Until the mid-1800s, there was widespread distrust for the fruit, possibly owing to one or more of the following factors:
Acidity reacting with pewter dinnerware, generating a form of mild poison.
Their relationship to the belladonna family (a group of poisonous nighshades)
People washing them with contaminated water
Starting from about 1860, the number of tomatoes you could get from catalogs grew from 5-10 (mostly red). Now, in 2020 you can choose from up to 15,000 different tomato varieties to grow.
Heirloom Plants & the Seed Savers Exchange
In 1975, Missourian Kent Whealy became concerned about the disappearance of non-hybrid vegetable varieties, which were vanishing from seed catalogs. Most people would see the latest, greatest hybrid because it looked beautiful on the cover of the catalog and rush to plant those varieties because of the scare tactics used to push them. Seed sellers pushed the myth that if you didn’t plant hybrid vegetables, your whole garden was at risk for disease, and subsequently, elderly families that had seeds saved from generations before were allowing those seeds to be forgotten or eaten by mice.
In response, Kent championed heirloom plants, which are non-hybrid, open pollinated vegetables. Heirloom itself is a term that has been much abused and somewhat misunderstood. Many tomatoes marketed as “heirloom” today are in fact hybrids, and just because a tomato has been stabilized as an heirloom doesn’t mean it’s not a product of hybridization. In fact, like humans, all tomatoes are a result of hybridization – otherwise, they would all still be tiny little berries.
About Tomato Juice
The first time tomato juice was employed in a mixological format was in 1917 by Chef Louis Perrin at the French Lick Springs Hotel in southern Indiana. The story goes: the hotel had run out of orange juice, and Perrin dediced that a mix of tomato juice, sugar, and his special sauce (no relation to Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce) would be delicious. It caught on and was called the “Tomato Juice Cocktail,” a predecessor of The Bloody Mary.
The USDA conducted a study back in the 1960’s that determined that the pH range of all tomatoes is extremely narrow, which means that the other complicating factor is sugar. There are no high acid or low acid tomatoes – only tomatoes in which higher sugar levels help to cover up the acidic flavor. Also, tomatoes are more than 90% water, which mpixeans that if you simply juice a tomato, the water and pulp will separate out over time. Consequently, many commercial tomato juices on shelves today employ tomato paste and chemical stabilizers to keep the color consistent and mixture in suspension.
Breaking the Bloody Mary
One of the major opportunities in exploring different tomato varieties is that we can potentially change the way that people think about The Bloody Mary by being more intentional (and more playful) with the tomato juice we use in the drink. Without advanced clarification or coloring techniques, it would be possible to make Bloody Marys with green, purple, yellow, or even clear tomato juice. During the interview, Craig also raised the creative idea of playing with different thicknesses or textures to create a “layered” Bloody Mary in the style of a “Pousse Cafe.”