The New World, Tomatoes and Mortgage Lifters

Tomatoes have long been a staple. A reliable can. In the feverish bull market of the twenty-tens, through to the twenty-teens, a can of tomatoes would come guaranteed with a price of sanity. A very practical one-dollar. Consider yourself to have better taste than that? Flush with cash? You could spend around that, just slightly more, on the canned organic variety at your local farmer’s market.

A can of tomatoes takes pride of place among consumer staples, or, what we want, and need, in times of uncertainty. When the leaves of reality unfurl in frightening ways, and narratives all but collapse, it’s the staples that will remain. Toothpaste. Toilet paper. Tins of tomato, tuna, anything other than beetroot (or so I’ve noticed at the supermarket).

In good times, we rarely give staples a second-thought. They’re just there. We find solace in staples as a matter of survival. In the Great Depression, tomatoes came into their own, growing in favour, as people and punters snapped up pieces of the vine that would seemingly ripen anywhere the sun could shine. Of course, as is the way, it takes more than light to catalyse change. 

Even still, the humble tomato, rich in colour and not much else, became some kind of a saving grace.

What constitutes a tomato? Nothing special. Sodium and carbohydrates. In Italian, sale e zucchero. Salt and sugar. No protein. No fat. Tomatoes are balanced so far on the scales as some think they’re a vegetable, others a fruit, but they’re certainly not a balanced food. 

However, when a crisis falls upon us, things get shaken up. Psychologically, we must find a new balance. Whether by design, or out of necessity, we look to strip our lives back to basics. 

The Great Depression gave rise to the Mortgage Lifter, a tomato breed known for its welcoming sweet flavour and productive nature. More than a fruit, it became an asset that American-Applelachian farmers extracted throughout the economic crisis. It was developed in the early 1930s in small-town Logan, West Virginia, by M.C. Byles, a hobby farmer who could, or ‘Radiator Charlie’ as he was affectionately known. 

Starting with four varieties of tomato, from what we know, Byles took a German Johnson, an Italian variety, and an English type too, and initiated his very own green New Deal. From sowing to harvesting — even pollinating with a baby’s ear syringe in between — Byles became a real worker bee. In a Living on Earth public radio interview recorded in 1985, Radiator Charlie recalls selling Mortgage Lifter seedlings for $1 a piece and folks coming from as far as 200 miles to buy them. With juicy red tomatoes, Byles did indeed pay off his $6000 mortgage — what a bright and shiny thing. 

With the right support, as seed becomes scrambling vine, the tomato is a plant that quicker seems to bolt from old ground to big blue sky. A symbolic display, perhaps even a primordial leap, made all the richer by the Mortgage Lifter’s usonian picture. You see, the tomato is classified as a New World crop, yet as we often see with such new world things, it’s a turn of phrase that’s a little misleading. Tomatoes were first cultivated in 500 BC, predating the Roman Empire. How’s that for new? The first references to New World crops can be found in early 20th century texts. The term has come to describe crops native to the New World, or the Americas, before 1492, and not found anywhere else at that time.

If invention is imposing a shape on nature, and discovery is revealing the pattern of nature, tomato crops may have been old and simply discovered anew. Comparing shapes and patterns, there’s a nuanced difference, where one ‘goes against the grain’ and the other follows it through. If we consider Byles and the Mortgage Lifter, maybe the sweetest spot is somewhere between the two.

If the history of the humble tomato teaches us anything, it’s that all things are yet to be discovered.

Laura Daquino

“Creative addition always yields more than the prosaic sum of the parts,” observed graphic artist Alan Fletcher in his own life’s work The Art of Looking Sideways. So too does creative cultivation.

Discovery, also, takes time. It took Byles seven long and hard years at work in cross-breeding trials to discover the Mortgage Lifter. And naturally, the story of the Mortgage Lifter stretches far beyond that. 

Before the tomato became common stock, it was feared as the ‘poison apple’ for a nasty habit of attacking aristocrats. It’s now painfully obvious, but it took 200 years and a concertina of deaths by dinner to see the tomato in a different light. Eventually, we discovered, the bourgeoisie would use tableware made of pewter, characterised by a higher lead content. Foods high in acid, such as tomatoes, drew out the lead and it simply seeped through the food. Tomatoes became the last supper, a special kind of poison on a plate. Meanwhile, the proletariat used wood for plates, so tomatoes sat well among the common class, particularly those in Italy, by economics and geographic destiny. It wasn’t until the 1800s that tomatoes were discovered once again as new, with mass immigration from Europe to America beginning our modern-day mixing of culture. 

Back to Byles, and while it may have been the Great Depression, we then get a sense that he was in the right place at the right time — the hallmarks of any great discovery, maybe more than skill or smarts. But he still picked up the right tool to lift himself up and out. 

“A man who can’t visualise a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot,” apparently said French writer and poet Andre Breton, who laid the foundations of Surrealism after World War I. If it seems lost in translation, it’s not. Whether creating shapes or following patterns, the only ingredient that discovery needs is creativity. When a crisis falls upon us, it’s really a call to us, and we can choose to answer with creativity. 

If the history of the humble tomato teaches us anything, it’s that all things are yet to be discovered. The poison apple went to seed only to be seen as something so much more. What else are we failing to notice in the depths of crisis? Is there an opportunity on your doorstep? Crisis calls, and creativity can be the answer. What’s your mortgage lifter?