You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Tomato Queen

Lawrence Bush
July 12, 2017

Tillie Ehrlich-Weisberg Lewis, who introduced the pomodoro tomato to California’s agricultural fields and built the fifth largest canning business in America, using workers of all races and ethnicities in her enterprise and marrying a labor organizer who sought to organize them into the American Federation of Labor, was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1896. Her first husband was a wholesale grocer who imported pomodoro tomatoes and other delicacies from Italy. After their divorce, she briefly became a Wall Street stockbroker and, when the U.S. government in 1934 raised tariffs on tomato products by 50 percent, she convinced an Italian cannery owner (who was her lover) to back her in introducing the pomodoro to California. A few years later, she had built San Joaquin County into the top tomato-producing county in the U.S. She also began canning spinach, asparagus, fruit juices, and baby food, and during the Korean War she became the country’s largest supplier of Army C-Rations. She met Meyer Lewis, an AFL organizer, in 1940 as workers sought to unionize her factories. They married in 1947, and in 1952 established Tasti-Diet Foods, which was one of the earliest marketers of artificially sweetened fruits and soft drinks. (Whether her factories were ever successfully organized, Jewdayo has not been able to determine.) The Associated Press named her “Businesswoman of the Year” in 1951, and by 1971, her company, which she had sold to Ogden Foods, had sales of over $90 million annually.

“She hired many Mexican, Japanese and other minority workers in an era of rampant bias. She encouraged women to excel in male-dominated workplaces. She enjoyed luxurious homes and travels but helped employees in times of need.” --The Modesto Bee

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.