Benign Majesty: The Very Much Alive Tomato

At this time of the summer in the United States if you have a garden or you frequent farmers markets there is a very high chance that you are going to have a run in with a tomato.

While tomatoes are one of the world’s most consumed, highest valued and most widely grown vegetable crop and can be procured all year long, there is nothing like a seasonal tomato that is bending the stem from the weight, that is warm from the sun, that is luminescent with their color, that is nestled in a croft of tangled,fragrant green leaves and tender vines and eaten.

You may have it in your memory bank that the tomato “comes from Mexico” and I basically thought that too but sort of allowing for Central America as the region in general, but some research published in just the last few weeks has changed our understanding of tomato history. The tomato’s winding road from wild plant to Mexico to Christopher Columbes to Europe to global cupboard staple is much more complex than researchers (and the rest of us) had long thought.
The old understanding went like this: humans domesticated the tomato in two major phases. First, native people in South America cultivated blueberry-sized wild tomatoes about 7,000 years ago to breed a plant with a cherry-sized fruit. Later, people in Mesoamerica bred this intermediate group further to form the large cultivated tomatoes that we eat today.

But in a recently completed genomic study shows that the cherry-sized tomato most likely originated in Ecuador around 80,000 years ago. No human groups were domesticating plants that long ago, so this implies that it started as a wild species, although people in Peru and Ecuador probably cultivated it later.

The exact mode of travel now isn’t known…was it birds? Was it humans who carried the seeds northwards? Much still to be researched.

But ultimately the tomato as we know it did emerge in Mexico. In Nahuatl, the main indigenous language of the Mexica-Tenochca people who we call Aztec, the word Mexico means “the navel of the moon.” This is because their main city, Tenochtitlán, was located in the lagoon of Lake Texcoco. When the area was viewed from the mountains they thought that the entire complex looked like a rabbit that had the same shape of a rabbit that they saw on the surface of the moon. Because their city Tenochtitlán was located in the center of the terrestrial rabbit they considered it the navel. This was a serious designation for them because anything that had a navel was born and alive to them. Their home was alive. The “xi” part of Mexico is the ‘xshi’ sound that means ‘navel.’

While all the Nahua peoples in the region grew, harvested, and ate tomatoes they had many different kinds…cōātomatl (snake tomato), coyōtomatl (coyote tomato), and izhuatomatl (husk tomato) to name a few. But the name for tomatoes in general was either “tomatl” (the red/yellow/orange one) which you can see lends to the name quite directly or “xitomatl” which would mean “the red/yellow/orange one with a navel.”

This is a beautiful little reflection of the world view of the Nahuatl speaking peoples of Central America that emerges from their language and grammar, that the tomato/tomatl was so clearly alive to them, that they were born, needed to be fed, and tended to in their consumption and death. For the Nahuatl speaking person there could be no such thing as a vegetarian or a vegan because they had a fundamentally different way of seeing the world. Pablo Neruda, the famed Chilean poet wrote an ode to the tomato that reads in part

light is

and of the tomato he continues:

“It sheds

its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift”

What a thing to say about the tomato. So alive it got honored by a marriage ceremony! What a way to honor the living world.

Here at Primal Derma there is a sincere effort to try to honor the tallow as alive as well, just as alive as a tomato, by speaking of all the living parts and the role that the fat had in the living world and not forget it, or how it got here, and to honor this good fat in the function it has in a second life with you on your good skin.

These cultural reflections and histories are worth taking a look at in my estimation so that we can be reminded that there might be other ways of seeing and naming the world. And once done we might proceed in it a bit differently. I pray that using Primal Derma and these missives keep those wonderings close at hand.

Thanks so much for your ongoing support in these days. I’m very grateful.

If this newsletter brings up any questions or comments – I’d love to hear them and I’ll respond with fullness, the best that I’m able.

Until soon enough,


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