Tomato Juice: An Ode to Ohio’s (Controversial) State Beverage

In a (somewhat) open-minded journey, a self-proclaimed tomato hater explores the story of tomatoes and tomato juice in Ohio, and along the way finds a rich history and bright future. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official organizational stance. Cover graphic by Sophia-Rose Diodati for Midstory.

It may come as a surprise that a little over half of U.S. states have designated a state beverage. The state hospitality beverage of South Carolina is SC-grown tea. Florida honors its iconic oranges. Twenty states have selected milk. Arizona picked lemonade, refreshing in its hot climate. And Indiana’s choice of water is, at the very least, neutral. But designating a “state beverage” in the first place all began in Ohio. And what did Ohio choose? Tomato juice. Ick. 

If you couldn’t tell already, I’m not a fan of the savory, slightly gooey beverage, or the vegetable (well, fruit) it comes from. But I’m a reasonable person. I trust that Ohio made this decision for a reason, and I’m sure there’s at least a few people in this state that enjoy drinking the processed juice and pulp of the fruit of the plant Solanum lycopersicum. (Side note: if we acknowledge that the tomato is botanically classified as a berry, does that make it easier to stomach it in juice form?)

And so, with a spirit of goodwill towards tomato-juice-drinkers, I took a dive into Ohio’s history with tomatoes — and while it didn’t change my taste buds, it did give me a newfound (preferably long-distance) appreciation for the fruit and its contribution to the history of my home state.

In 1965, the Ohio General Assembly made tomato juice Ohio’s official beverage. At that time, Ohio was a leading producer of tomatoes in the United States, second only to California.

How did Ohio become such an important name in the world of tomato production? It was all thanks to one man: Alexander Livingston. Born in Reynoldsburg, Ohio in 1821, his affinity for tomatoes was an early acquisition.

“One day, as a child, [Livingston] saw these tomatoes growing by the road, and he brought them home to show his mother because he thought they were really cool. And she said, ‘They’re pretty, and you can sit them on the mantel, but don’t eat them. They’re poisonous,’” Mary Turner Stoots, President of the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society, said. 

According to Stoots, a lot of people in those days thought they were poisonous because even the hogs turned their noses at their sour taste — something I certainly can understand.

Alexander Livingston and his family. Livingston would transport his ten children to church in a covered wagon, which during the week was secretly used to transport escaped slaves as a part of the Underground Railroad. Image courtesy of the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society.

Inspired by the wild tomatoes he found, while growing and selling other seeds and produce, Livingston spent twenty years picking the best tomatoes from his fields and planting those seeds the next year, looking to cultivate a plant that had the characteristics he desired. 

“His goal was to make a tomato that was juicy, that had a lot of meat on the inside, but also [whose] skin was hard enough that it could be shipped,” Stoots said. 

In 1870, nearly forty years after he first found the wild ones, Livingston released the first commercially viable tomato, which he named the Paragon. He transformed the tomato from small, nearly hollow and sour into the uniform, smooth-skinned fruit we know today. With Livingston’s improvements, tomatoes became more and more popular with both gardeners and cooks. Eventually, Livingston and his team created forty varieties of tomatoes at the A.W. Livingston’s Sons seed company, many of which are still sold as heirloom seeds. The varieties are meant to serve different purposes; some tomatoes are better for canning, some are grown for the variety in color and size, while others are meant to be shipped long distances. 

Of course, Livingston didn’t invent the tomato — or the way to grow them. Long before Livingston’s scientific work with the tomato, the fruit was grown by the Aztecs and Incas, whose empires were located in modern-day Mexico and Peru respectively. 

When the Spanish conquered these empires in the sixteenth century, they brought the fruit back to Europe, alongside other crops. While people along the Mediterranean in countries such as Spain and Italy loved the tomato, the British at the time thought it was poisonous, perhaps because it belongs to the same family as nightshade, a highly toxic plant. Early American colonists brought that dislike with them, and although Europeans had been experimenting with varieties, the tomato wasn’t truly popular in the States until Livingston transformed it.

First published in 1893, this book contains descriptions and drawings of Livingston’s tomato varieties, alongside recipes. Image courtesy of Open Library.

Livingston’s work is still honored by his hometown to this day. The Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival was started the year after the state made tomato juice the official beverage. The city had previously held a Fireman’s Jubilee each year, but was inspired to focus on tomatoes when the state of Ohio dedicated a plaque recognizing Alexander Livingston for his agricultural contributions and declaring Reynoldsburg the birthplace of the modern tomato. 

The three-day festival has been held since August of 1966. While I would pass on the Bloody Mary drinks at the festival, I do admit that tomatoes are uniquely suited for throwing at other people, so the Annual Tomato War does sound like fun. 

The Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival honors Livingston’s transformation of the tomato, which admittedly had a huge impact on agriculture in the United States. By 1910, over half of the mass-produced tomato varieties around the country were created by Livingston’s company, and those tomatoes continue to be some of the most popular today. 

The annual seed catalogs produced by A.W. Livingston’s Sons show the wide variety of seeds offered. Images courtesy of the Reynoldsburg-Truro Historical Society.

While tomatoes fall nowhere near the top of my favorites list for fruits or vegetables, I do acknowledge that many people are fans and that it is a staple of a wide variety of diets. I grew up in an Italian family that enjoyed spaghetti and homemade tomato sauce each Sunday, and I enjoy the sauce in very controlled quantities. However, I cannot and will not support tomato juice. 

Legend says that tomato juice, a true Midwest creation, was first made in a restaurant setting when Chef Louis Perrin ran out of oranges during a breakfast rush at the French Lick Springs Hotel in Southern Indiana. With a room full of diners demanding juice with their breakfast, he used tomatoes as a substitute to make a salty juice. A tomato juice company was eventually created to make it for the hotel, which saw huge demand for the new concoction. By 1928, the juice could be bought in cans on the commercial market. 

French Lick Tomato Juice boasts of the health value of the “slightly salted” juice. Image courtesy of Visit Indiana. 

While my personal opinion is that tomatoes are disgusting, especially in juice form, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. In fact, in Ohio, it seems that most people have the opposite opinion. While most people’s mental image of Ohio’s agriculture is one of endless corn fields, the humble tomato is an important part of Ohio’s crops, too. 

Ohio produces approximately 95,000 tons of tomatoes each year across 6,000 acres of land. According to the US Department of Agriculture, Ohio ranks third among the states in production of processed tomato products like sauce and paste and sixth in production of fresh tomatoes. Alongside tomato juice as the state beverage, tomatoes were named the state fruit in 2009. While farms of all sizes produce tomatoes for local and national markets, there are also Ohio companies dedicated to tomato production and manufacturing. 

Hirzel Canning Company and Farms is located in Northwood and Luckey, Ohio. The business is best known for the Dei Fratelli (Italian for “of the brothers”) line of tomato products. They grow their own tomatoes in addition to working with thirty regional growers. 

If raw tomatoes or tomato juice aren’t palatable to you either, there’s a good chance you might like another tomato product from Ohio. While Heinz is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the two plants where they make their tomato products, including their ketchup, is based in Fremont, Ohio. All tomatoes are grown within thirty miles of the plant

At the same time that I limit my personal tomato consumption, I also have a deep appreciation for the local farmers bringing tomatoes to Ohioans during the summer months. If I have to eat a tomato, I’d like it to be locally grown, and Ohio is a great place to find that. Tomatoes are relatively easy to grow, which makes them an admittedly great choice for local gardeners. 

After all this, even I have to admit that the tomato is a lovely celebration of Ohio’s history. Alexander Livingston’s innovative spirit shaped the state and its agricultural and manufacturing success, and in honor of that legacy, maybe I’ll stomach a few tomatoes without complaint — or, dare I say, even learn to enjoy them. Just please don’t make me drink any tomato juice.

By Sophia-Rose Diodati for Midstory.

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