Friday, February 22, 2013

Scuzza me, can you see, it's from old Napoli

Please join me in welcoming to this world a tiny, fragile little shoot, left, holding the promise of producing a bumper crop of San Marzano tomatoes. It's not only the first San Marzano to sprout, but the first tomato to sprout in our greenhouse this spring. The San Marzano, you should know, is not an heirloom without a great story: For decades, it was the paste tomato of preference in America. Americans loved this Italian import almost as much as a good Gaetano Donizetti opera. Ah, but then Benito Mussolini cozzied up to Hitler and in 1934 the United States Congress slapped prohibitive duties on imported Italian canned tomatoes and such. Here the story takes a real Central Valley twist: A woman and her husband were partners in a wholesale grocery business in Brooklyn. The wife worked as a purchasing agent and, in that capacity, made many trips to Italy. In fact, she knew a man, Florindo Del Gaizo, whose family grew the San Marzano in the Naples area and also owned canning facilities. Together, these two hatched a scheme to skirt the heavy import duties by growing the San Marzano in America. But where? Well, to make a long story short, they set up shop in the now bankrupt city of Stockton. Her name was Tillie Lewis and for decades, Tillie Lewis Foods thrived in Stockton, along with the FloTil Cannery and the San Marzano tomato. She was a great patron of the arts in the Delta area and if she were still around, I doubt that poor Stockton would be in the sad state it now finds itself in. And many thanks to Amy Goldman, Tillie's cousin, for recounting this story in the introduction to her worthy book on heirloom tomatoes: "The Heirloom Tomato, From Garden to Table."

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