The Toxic Tomato 8/17/19

By Richard Bleil

There are 327,208,431 people in the United States, and the tomato is loved by 327,208,429 of them.

Okay, it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that there are more than two people who don’t love tomatoes. Dan Quayle hated them ever since he lost the elementary school spelling bee to a 12 year old by spelling it “tomatoe”.

Okay, FINE, that was “potato”, not tomato, but it’s okay. I’m not in a very serious mood tonight anyway. And why didn’t he just claim he threw the contest?

But what fascinates me is that the tomato was believed to be toxic for several hundred years, into the nineteenth century, in fact. It blows my mind; when I think of the importance of tomatoes in the American and European diet, the recipes that rely on them, and just a couple of hundred years ago they were avoided like the plague.

Today, tomato sauces like marinara and pizza, toppings for pizza, heck, even tomato ketchup are all tomato based. This is kind of an interesting thing in and of itself; it used to be that “ketchup” was a generic condiment name, and they would specify the kind of ketchup; made from mustard seed, or tomatoes (hence “tomato ketchup”). Catsup specifically is from tomatoes. Today the two are used interchangeably, but originally ketchup was more generic and not necessarily tomato based.

Tomatoes were thought to be poisonous because of the tastes of the European aristocracy. Their plates were made of high lead content, and the highly acidic juices from the tomato bleached the lead out of them, leading to lead poisoning.

This is an example of cause and effect. People ate tomatoes, and the people eating them got sick and died, so it must be the tomatoes, right? I mean, if they ate steak off of the plates, it couldn’t possibly be the plates, could it?

We still see this today. In fact, it is one of the major anti-vax arguments. Many vaccinations begin around three years old, which is about the same time that the symptoms of Down’s syndrome becomes apparent, so, it must be the vaccinations that are causing the problem, right? RIGHT? Or could it be the people selling the “natural” remedies for vaccinations and making money by exploiting the fears of parents?

It is unfortunately all too easy to politicize cause and effect and use them to confuse matters. Early in his presidency, the economy was strongly increasing, with unemployment continuing to fall. Today our economy is strong, for which the president takes credit without mentioning that these trends have been occurring for eight years before his term began. Today indications are frighteningly strong that we are heading towards a recession, with many experts claiming the “trade war” with China and debt caused by the president’s tax cuts. Fortunately for the president, Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives, which the president can claim to be at fault because, despite when the trends began, the Democrats are in control.

Cause and effect can also be used to confuse current events. Evidence increasingly supports the hypothesis that it is human activity giving rise to global warming. Unfortunately, to fight it would require serious changes that could be very expensive for industry. There are two arguments that can be employed to avoid doing the difficult work of fighting global warming, and we’re hearing them both. First, we have the climate change deniers (it sure is cold tonight; global warming must not be real), and the blame deniers (yes, global warming is real, but there’s no evidence that it’s caused by human activity). Scientists work hard to “de-couple” random acts from long term trends, just as they try hard to avoid false blame, but, in science, there is always some doubt. Any scientist with any competence at all realizes that in the most dearly held “truths” is a finite possibility that we are incorrect. This is the nature of science, and this doubt is often exploited for political purposes.

Perhaps the worst “cause and effect” cases are those that we sell ourselves. It’s always easier to blame others for our own actions rather than taking responsibility ourselves. I’ve lost jobs that I probably should not have, but I also understand that, while I was doing what I felt needed to be done the way it needed to be done, I was also aware that I was stepping on nerves as I did so. In my last job, I did step up and protect my faculty, as a dean should do, but I also know that in doing so I would irritate the provost who had previously made her dislike for me all too apparent (and public at that). I knew I was risking my own job to protect them, but I stepped up anyway, and that was my doing. I would love to blame my ex-wife for the direction my life has taken since our divorce, nearly a decade ago, but it’s not her; it’s me. And because it’s me, it’s also within my power to fix my life.

Cause and effect.

Maybe I’ll just eat a tomato and end it all!

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