Tillie Lewis: More than just about tomatoes
One of the ingredients that is a staple in my kitchen cupboard is canned tomatoes. I will almost always have a can or two around in case I decide I want to make a quick tomato sauce or a pizza, and I especially rely on them throughout the majority of the year when local tomatoes are unavailable. Yet I recently realized that throughout the process of buying, using and consuming these tomatoes, I never stopped to think about their history and how they came to be the product we know today.
As I was reading through This Week in History for the month of July I was fascinated when I came across the entry for Tillie Lewis who was among the first to introduce US grown Roma tomatoes to mainstream consumers and who in turn opened the first canning factory owned by a woman seventy eight years ago today on July 13th, 1935 (it also happened to be the day of her birthday) in Stockton, California.
Although most people will not recognize her name today, a quick Google search shows that she is a figure who still captures people’s interest. A symposium bearing her name was held at the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California in 2009, while a lecture entitled “From Pauper to Princess: Tillie Lewis, 'Secrets to Making it Big in a Bad Economy'” was given at Delta College in San Joaquin in 2010 as part of their celebrations for Women’s History Month. Lewis’ short biography on JWA definitely captured my attention and left me wanting to know more about this Jewish woman who was an influential figure the area of food production in America.
After a little research I found an article in Gastronomica by Ken Albala entitled “The Tomato Queen of San Joaquin” that provides an in depth look at her journey in becoming the pioneering business woman that she was.
Lewis is most well known for her tomato canning company, which was first called Flotill Products Inc. (a combination of her name and that of the co-founder Florindo del Gaizo). Lewis became sole owner of the company after del Gaizo’s death in 1937 when she bought his share of the company. Not only did she expand the consumer base of canned tomatoes beyond the Italian Americans for whom these tomatoes were first brought the United States, but hers was also a company that treated its workers well and served a model for employee benefits. In his article, Albala explains that Lewis saw herself as the matriarch of her family of workers and in turn did her best to ensure that their needs were met.
In the aforementioned article, another side to Lewis’ business is discussed and this was the creation of a line of diet foods in the 1950s. This line was called Tasti-Diet and was launched in 1952 with the slogan “Sweet to the taste, but kind to the waist” in which all the products were sweetened with saccharine. This line was endorsed by the American Medical Association and was in turn marketed to nutritionists. The marketing ploy that went along with these products told consumers (women) that after being told that she was overweight she went to the company’s chemist and asked her to create diet food, which helped her to lose 26 pounds. Testimonies from women who followed Lewis’ diet plan revolved around the fact that having lost weight afforded them a better relationship with their husbands, and in one instance it was purported to have saved the marriage of a woman whose husband wanted to divorce her because she was “just too fat” (yes, really). With this I came to see that Tillie Lewis presents us with an interesting dichotomy, in which one side presents us with a pioneering businesswoman working in a field that was, and still is, dominated by men. While on the other hand we have a woman who is playing into the unrealistic and unhealthy social ideal that a woman should be thin in order to be deemed acceptable in the eyes of her husband as well as society. This leaves me wondering why Lewis chose to create such a line of products and market them the way she did. Did she feel the need to do so because she was a woman? What is your take on this dichotomy?
Despite her questionable choices in marketing her diet products, there is no denying Lewis was a strong and savvy businesswoman who had a lasting impact on the American food industry. I think it is only fitting to remember her for her more positive contribution (as well as her Jewish heritage) by making either Salade Cuite or Chittarnee, two delicious tomato based dishes that make the most of this ingredient.