The culinary industry is made up of literally thousands of remarkable people whose names have been lost to history. One person, however, who should be remembered along with Julia Child and Alice Waters is Tillie Lewis, America’s Tomato Queen (and so much more).
Born in abject poverty in 1896, Tillie Lewis was a remarkable woman who became a millionaire in her own right while supporting fair labor policies, encouraging a healthy diet and fighting against world hunger.
Born Myrtle Ehrlich, she grew up in Brooklyn’s early Jewish tenement housing and found her first job in the sweat shops of New York’s garment district at the early age of 14.
Attractive and determined to find a way out of the grinding poverty that surrounded her, she bravely auditioned at 16 for a position as a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl and got it! There she met Fannie Brice, the zany comedian immortalized by Barbra Streisand in the musical Funny Girl.
At the Follies, she encountered a glamorous lifestyle far beyond the poverty of her childhood. There she saw the wealthy mingle with the talented and the beautiful in an intoxicating swirl more powerful than any gin martini. And it was there that she met Florindo del Gaizo.
Florindo was the young son of a wealthy Italian family dynasty that had made a fortune importing Italian plum tomatoes to the American market. At 23, he was sent to New York to represent the family’s interests, especially to the growing community of Italians arriving in America.
He liked his job, New York City and he especially liked Tillie. Recognizing that Tillie was bright as well as beautiful, he shared with her over cocktails and in between dances the ins-and-outs of how business really works.
Tillie listened and learned but she went further. She wisely perceived that while one’s beauty might come and go, everyone has to eat. In short, a career in food was far more lasting then a career kicking up one’s legs from behind a feather fan.
Under Florindo’s sponsorship, she traveled to Italy where she studied further how business works and met Florindo’s wife. She returned to America aware that a divorce and second marriage was not ever going to be possible for the very Catholic Florindo.
Back in New York she watched as the crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression slowed both Broadway ticket sales and business opportunities. When Congress passed a 50% tariff increase on imported foods in an effort to protect failing American farms, it was time for Florindo, in more than one way, to return to Italy, and this time without Tillie. His parting gift to Tillie was a large packet of seeds of his beloved Italian plum tomatoes.
With little money, tremendous tenacity and the precious tomato seeds in hand, Tillie relocated to Stockton, California. There she persuaded the local farmers to raise her ‘strange looking’ tomato, promising she would buy their entire crop when ripe. She was going to sell them to the customers Florindo could no longer supply because of the new import tariff.
Next she needed cans. She amazingly persuaded the Pacific Can Company to open a plant in Stockton, with an option for her to buy it, which she later did. By 1940, she had made San Joaquin County the top tomato-producing county in the United States!
But she went further. She changed the restrictive traditional hiring practices by inviting both men and women of all races and faiths to work at her plants. She hired based on loyalty, good character and willingness to work; she hired the handicapped and the elderly; she brought thousands of Americans out from fields and poverty into the middle class.
Over the next decade, she began canning spinach and asparagus and built more canning plants. She added canned fruits, nutritious baby foods and healthy juices.
Tillie met her future husband, the charismatic American labor organizer Meyer Lewis, when he came to inspect her expanding plants. He was stunned that the attractive, flaming red haired lady in her fashionable fur-collared suit was running a culinary canning empire that was both humane and profitable!
But Tillie wasn’t done yet. She added the title “Duchess of Diet” to her titles when she launched the world’s first American Medical Association-approved diet and diet products. Her concept of a healthy diet, including increased portions of fruits and vegetables, appeared not only in local grocery stores from coast to coast but also on the room service menus of many high-end hotels.
During the early 1950’s, her company was the largest supplier of Army C-Rations during the Korean War. As a result of her ground breaking activities, Tillie was named in 1951 “Businesswoman of the Year” by the Associated Press.
She began selling shares of her company on the American Stock Exchange in 1961. By 1971, Tillie Lewis Foods had sales of over $90 million per year, equal to over $500,000,000 in today’s dollars.
Yet when most individuals would have been ready to hang up their hat and retire, Tillie was just getting started. She turned her attention to global food production and the fight against world hunger. In 1967 and 1968, she attended the World Council Against Global Hunger as America’s representative. There she spoke out forcefully for the right of all to a healthy diet including fruits, vegetables and food harvested from the sea.
In her later years she served as an advisor to many world leaders and was a popular speaker advocating for the rights of women in the workplace and a healthy diet for everyone. She died from a stroke while giving a speech on this topic in 1977.
Tillie had everything against her — poverty, even beauty in a way. Yet she never gave up. She worked hard and made a difference in countless lives, from the workers she treated fairly to the troops she made sure were well-fed during wartime. She is most definitely a woman worth remembering, as she would want to be remembered, with a great meal.
Mussels with Italian Plum Tomatoes
6 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
8 garlic cloves, sliced
28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, crushed by hand (with thanks to Tillie Lewis)
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp peperoncino flakes
10 large fresh basil leaves, shredded
Heat 5 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
Add the sliced garlic.
Cook until the garlic sizzles and turns just golden around the edges, about 2 minutes.
Add the tomatoes
Add1/4 cup hot water to the pot.
Season with the oregano, salt, and peperoncino.
Bring to a boil, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.
Once the sauce has thickened, add the mussels.
Stir and adjust the heat so the sauce is simmering.
Cover, and simmer until the mussels open, about 5 minutes.
Once the mussels have opened, stir in the basil.
Drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil.
Transfer the mussels to a serving bowl, and pour juices over.
Serve immediately (and remember the amazing Tillie!).