Faces of Death: The Tomato Version

“The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid! One dose and you are dead. Johnson suffers from high blood pressure, too. That deadly juice will aggravate the condition. If the wolf peach is too ripe and warmed by the sun, he’ll be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he survive, by some unlikely chance, I must remind that the skin of the Solanum lycopersicum will stick to the lining of his stomach and cause cancer.”
– Dr. James Van Meeter (1820)

Hand with tomatoes

When I was in college, there was a most bizarre kind of party you could attend. It was a “Faces of Death” party. For those of you not familiar with the “Faces of Death” movies, they are a series of documentary films that depict real people committing suicide.

Understandably, at that time, the films were very hard to get a copy of (though today you just have to go to Amazon) so when someone was able to get their hands on a copy of one of the films, they threw a party and everybody was invited to come over to drink themselves ill while watching a video where people killed themselves.

I know, it is a sick way to pass the time, but believe it or not, this sort of gathering is not in any way unique to colleges in the early 1990s.

The quote at the top was from the doctor of one Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson after hearing that Colonel Johnson had proposed to sit on the courthouse steps and eat an entire basket of tomatoes. Dr. Meeter was fairly certain that he would be witnessing his patient commit suicide on the steps of that courthouse and had no qualms about letting anybody and everybody know about it.

In true “Faces of Death” tradition (predition?), over two thousand people, some coming from many miles away, gathered around the courthouse steps that day to watch a man commit near certain suicide. I am not quiet sure if they drank themselves ill. I think that may just be part of the college version.

Colonel Johnson was a consummate tomato lover, which was saying a lot for a guy who lived in the United States in the early 1800s. At that time most people (as you can see from Dr. Meeter’s quote) were pretty sure that tomatoes were painfully lethal if you consumed them. This whole attitude may be understandable if it were universal opinion, but it wasn’t.

By this time, the French, Spanish and Italians had already whole hearted adopted the tomato into their national cuisines, but us crazy Americans couldn’t get that through our thick skulls. They were lethal, always been lethal, always gonna be lethal, now pass the cornbread and shut up.

Colonel Johnson had made it his personal mission to bring Tomato Enlightenment to the American masses. At first, he tried a subtle approach. He offered a prize every year to the person who could grow the largest tomato. More people did start growing the tomato, but only as they had traditionally been grown in the US, as an ornamental vine.

That was simply not enough for Colonel Johnson. He would not sit by and watch his beloved tomato simply die on the vine, so to speak. So, he proposed to prove to everyone that they were not a lethal fruit. He announced that he would eat an entire basket of tomatoes, one right after another, in front of God, Justice and everybody.

The date was set for Sepember 26th, 1820. The town and media went into a frenzy. Nothing says entertainment like watching a guy eat himself to death.

The day arrived and as promised, Colonel Johnson showed up on the courthouse steps with a basket of luscious yellow tomatoes in tow (believe it or not, yellow strains of tomatoes are actually the closer relatives to the original wild strains and are the ones that would have been more widely grown at the time).

He sat down and bit directly into the first one. Supposedly a few women in the gathered onlookers actually screamed and fainted, so certain they were that they were witnessing a man kill himself.

Colonel Johnson finished the entire basket and left the courthouse steps triumphant. The newpapers spread the story far across the US and this media stunt is widely considered to be the turning point in United States / tomato relations. Colonel Johnson had succeeded in his mission. People in the US finally accepted that you could eat tomatoes without fear of death or illness.

In the US today, we consume an average 100 pounds of tomatoes each and nearly half the households in the US grow at least one tomato plant every year. I think we have gotten over the whole death phobia about them. I just wonder if we have gotten over the whole death fascination. Probably not. Who needs “Faces of Death” when you have the 11 o’clock news to watch?

Some information for this post was taken from “American Tomato“, which is an excellent book on tomatoes if you have the time.

Picture taken by Katinka Kober.

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