The most pleasant surprise, as we researched and put together the Caribbean Crossroads Collection, was learning about this delightful Caribbean heirloom tomato. The seeds of the ancestor of the tomato we have now were collected in Haiti by the late Norbert Parreira of Helimer, France, and sent in a seed exchange to tomato expert Dr. Carolyn Male in the U.S. in 1992. Food historian William Woys Weaver got seed from her and subsequently offered them through Seed Savers Exchange, where they are still in circulation, and where we found our seeds. We would like to thank Nancy Wygant at Bartram’s Garden, who grows the Plate de Haiti in their kitchen garden. We grew out and saved their seeds in Oregon for the Caribbean Crossroads Collection.
Weaver connected the currently circulated Plate de Haiti variety with the original Caribbean heirlooms brought to the U.S. after the start of the Haitian Revolution, in the 1790s. He writes in Mother Earth News:
African-American tomatoes are difficult to document, and even fewer of them are also strikingly beautiful. This is one of my favorite tomatoes, not only for its exquisite appearance but also for its flavor. It also happens to be extremely old and probably misnamed. If anything, it should be called pomme de Haiti, because it is not flat but somewhat apple shaped. The earliest record of this tomato is a botanical drawing in Konrad Gessner’s Historia Plantarum (1561). Gessner’s specimens were doubtless grown from seed only recently brought from the Caribbean. Whatever its true origin, the tomato has been associated since the 1550s with the island now home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It is known to have entered North America in 1793 with the Creole refugees who fled the slave uprising in Haiti. Beyond this, documentation of the tomato has remained elusive; little effort was made in the nineteenth century to investigate the plant varieties grown in the kitchen gardens of American blacks.
We were so excited to find out about the Plate de Haiti, that we wrote to Weaver to ask him more about it. He replied in an email, “As you may know after the rebellion in Haiti in the 1790s much of the wealthiest French planters who managed to get out, came to Philadelphia, so for many years about 1/4 of the population of the city was French/Creole speaking, and many people of color came with them –they even published a newspaper in French. Indeed, the house I live in was owned for many years by the Dallets, confectioners who fled Port au Prince in the 1790s and later became coffee merchants. In any case, that time frame is when the tomato turns up in the Peale collection and we have found it in still life paintings by various members of that painterly family from the 1790s into the 1820s.”
“Your garden must be a Museum to you.”
–Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, March 2, 1812
It’s important to note that tomatoes were not part of American cookery until later in the 19th century. The Peales, Thomas Jefferson, and other American gardeners, grew the tomato mostly as an exotic curiosity. For the most part, it was considered a poisonous ornamental in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, Americans who traveled to the Caribbean or other Latin American colonies, or who, like Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, relished French cuisine, tomatoes were already elemental to the beauty and flavor of many dishes. That is to say, tomatoes had been a part of indigenous gardens throughout the Caribbean, and were slowly being adopted into the melange of Colonial cooking, first Spanish, then Italian, then French, and through the servants of colonists, and the travels of enslaved Africans throughout the Americas, the tomato eventually made its way onto the mainstream American table, towards the deserved stardom it enjoys today.
THE HAITIAN CONNECTION- an excerpt from The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery, by Andrew W. Smith, “The Historical Tomato:”
Though the tomato’s introduction process was haphazard, two major influences were particularly important in the early expansion of tomato culture and cookery in America. The first was British (…)
In Philadelphia, English immigrants Cuthbert and David Landreth received tomato seeds from Rubens Peale during the 1790s and may have sold the fruit to French immigrants, but there was evidently little demand from others (…)
Seedsmen and gardeners communicated with botanists and other natural scientists in America and Europe. Knowledge about the tomato flowed through the seedsmen and gardeners to local farmers.
The second major influence on tomato cultivation and cookery in America was of French and Creole derivation. This germinated in several different ways. Huguenot refugees, other French settlers, and their progeny in South Carolina, New Orleans, and the Old Northwest cultivated and consumed tomatoes beginning in the eighteenth century. As previously remarked, Jefferson sent tomato seeds from France to Virginia during the 1780s. Tomato seeds from France were exported into Philadelphia in 1793 (…)
In addition to the direct influence form metropolitan France, American tomato cookery was influenced by French and Creole refugees from what is today Haiti. Inspired by the French Revolution and led by Toussaint L’Overture, Haitian slaves revolted in 1791. Many French refugees, along with their slaves and servants, immigrated to America during the following decade. When Peale grew tomatoes in Philadelphia in the 1790s, he grew them in hopes of raising a flower. A French gentleman from Haiti recognized the “Tomato as a favorite fruit of his.” According to Weaver, this may have been a reference to Pierre Bossee, an innkeeper from Cap Francaise in Haiti, who opened a boardinghouse and restaurant in Philadelphia shortly after his arrival in 1793. Three years later a Haitian refugee named Nicalo arrived in Philadelphia, bringing seeds from several vegetables, including the tomato. When his tomatoes ripened, Nicalo dressed them in a salad, which was relished by the neighboring Eldridge family. Other neighbors raised them as ornaments, having the impression that they were poisonous.
French and Creole refugees from Haiti also cultivated tomatoes in Maryland and other places near the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. John James believed that Haitian refugees brought tomatoes to Alexandria. These refugees were of course well acquainted with the tomato. James always supposed that they had introduced it into the United States. Outen Laws, from Wilmington, Delaware, remembered that in 1803 only a few bushes of the tomato were grown in his flower garden, and their fruits were conspicuously arranged on the table, their “bright hue attracting the admiration of the visitor.” Refugees from Haiti settled in Delaware, together with their black serving women, companions of their flight. These “colored women” possessed refined manners and were regarded as artistic cooks. Laws believed that these women, “by the exercise of their arts, in the preparation of tomato for the table, may have overcome our aversion to it as an article of food.”
Americans of French descent not only ate tomatoes but also introduced them to other countries. John James Audubon was born in New Orleans; his father was an officer in the French navy and his mother a Creole. They moved to Haiti, and his mother died there during the slave uprising. Audubon moved to France, studied ornithology, and returned in 1803 to America, where he began painting birds. In 1826, while visiting a Mr. Roscoe in Liverpool, England, Audubon ate a raw tomato and quite astonished his hosts.”
The Plate de Haiti is a wonderful little tomato– be cautious not to assume it is ripe too early on in the season, when they are turning red. They fully ripen to a “deep vermillion,” as Weaver puts it. The acid/sweetness balance is a delight. Cook these in any classic Creole recipe, braised, or fresh in salads.
As in Southeast Louisiana, tomatoes are the mark of Creole cooking. In some parts, “the trinity” of ingredients are onions, celery, and peppers– plus tomato. Peruse any of the Louisiana Creole favorites and you will often see a Haitian dish looking right back. A classic Creole Sauce or “Sos Vyann,” can be found in Fine Haitian Cuisine by Mona Cassion Menager.
If you are concerned with all of this talk of Louisiana, Haiti, and the Caribbean heritage of this special tomato, and want to be sure it will still thrive in Oregon like any other tomato, visit our Plate de Haiti album of the 2014 trial garden in Cottage Grove, Oregon.