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Fables and facts about ‘love apple’

By Miguel Braganza

There is an old English saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. The issue is only about which ‘apple’ we are talking about. Is it about the custard apple locally known as the sita phal or the apple that Eve is supposed to have given Adam and introduced death as a visa to immortal life herein after?  Perhaps, it was the cashew apple which yields the elixir of life we call feni. It could be the love apple, since love is known to make life worth living. The confusion is whether the term ‘Love Apple’ refers to the Watery Rose Apple, Syzygium aquem that we call “Zaam” or to the ubiquitous lovely red tomato.

The tomato is known botanically as Lycopersicon esculentum, which means “edible wolf peach” in Latin. The Aztecs from what is now known as Latin America called the fruit as “tomatl” and used the red fruit as a side dish to the main course of human flesh. The Aztecs practiced cannibalism. The story of our blood red Amaranth is also interwoven in this bloody diet of yore, or of gore, in the New World. The tomato, which was classified alongside the deadly belladonna, mandrake and nightshade plants, was believed by the Europeans to be poisonous. How it came to be dubbed as “love apple” is a story worth knowing on Valentine’s Day. Love, like politics, is often more about perception than about reality.

As in the case of any reality, there are three versions, and each of them is quite plausible. One story goes back to the very beginning of mankind on Earth. The other two are more recent. The mandrake plant is renowned for its aphrodisiac qualities. In the book of Genesis [chapter 30 verses 14 and 15], Rachel and Leah, the two sisters who were married to Jacob or Israel, concocted a love potion out of mandrake roots. The Hebrew word for mandrake, “Dudaim,” can be translated as “love plants” or “love apples”. Incidentally, jealousy is the main refrain about the story of Jacob and his brother, Essau, as well as Rachel and her sister, Leah. “Heaven has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turned, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorned.” wrote William Congreve in his play “The Mourning Bride”.  This is an eternal truth, across communities.

While it is possible that tomatoes are called love apples because of their aphrodisiacal qualities and link to the mandrake, there are two other theories as well. These theories are linked to how the tomato migrated through Europe. Spanish travelers to the “New World” discovered by Columbus brought tomatoes back to Europe in the sixteenth century. The fruits of the tomatoes that they brought were more golden than red. In 1544, Italian herbalist Pietro Andrae Matthioli made the first reference to the presence of tomato in Europe when he wrote about the ‘pomi d’oro,’ or apples of gold. The name got corrupted to ‘pomi dei amore’ which means ‘love apples’.

Around the same time, the Moors from Northern Africa were ruling over parts of Spain. They took the tomato back to Morocco, and it came to be called ‘pomi dei mori’, or ‘apple of the Moors’. The French are more involved with love than with war. When the French got hold of the tomato, they named it ‘pomme d’amour,’ or apple of love. Whether they called it that because of its association with the mandrake plant and the Biblical reference to Leah and Rachel, or was it simply a linguistic slip-up, one will never know. One can read more about tomato the book “Exploring the Tomato: Transformations of Nature, Society and Economy” by Mark Harvey, Stephen Quilley and Huw Beynon published in 2002.

Eating the tomato is good for the heart. Lycopene is a bright red carotene pigment found in tomatoes and other red fruits like watermelons and papayas as well as in vegetables like red carrots, although not in red capsicum or cherries. Preliminary research has shown that people who consume tomatoes may have a lower cancer risk and less likelihood of heart attack. To that extent at least the ‘love apples’ are concerned with the matters of the heart and longevity of life.

According to researchers, the more brightly coloured the vegetable, the more protective the health benefits, thanks to a rich assortment of plant compounds called phyto-chemicals and anti-oxidants. These nutrient-dense foods that may offer the most protective health benefits against cancer and other diseases, as well as helping people with diabetes control their calorie intake and blood sugar. Phytochemicals help the body deal with substances called free radicals. Free radicals, formed from a natural process called oxidation specially of chemical fertilizers, can damage body cells and tissues as well as DNA. Damage caused by oxidation may lead to the onset of health problems such as cancer, heart disease, cataracts, and arthritis. Fortunately, antioxidant vitamins and many phytochemicals help to ‘neutralize’ free radicals before they can do damage and may even help undo some of the damage already done to cells. Antioxidants such as beta-carotene or Vitamin A, C and E are readily available in colourful vegetables, specially tomatoes. So for the life of your love and the love of your life, there is nothing better than the beginning of a life-long romance with organically grown ‘love apples’ from this Valentine’s Day onward. You can grow a few plants in pots even in your balcony.

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