The Simpsons Folder
You say to-ma-to, I say to-bac-co
January 12, 2004, By TED KATAUSKAS, SPECIAL TO THE OREGONIAN
Ay, Tigard scientist Rob Baur becomes a star by bringing to life a version of a tomato-tobacco hybrid seen on “The Simpsons”
Rob Baur looks more like Bobby Kennedy than Homer Simpson. At 53, he has a full head of hair and 10 fingers (Homer has only eight), no discernable five-o’clock shadow and no beer gut.
Biographically, however, the two have certain similarities: Homer Simpson works as a technician at a nuclear power plant outside a city that’s ringed by snowcapped mountains and forested hills; Rob Baur is the staff scientist at a sewage treatment plant in Tigard, near snowcapped mountains and forested hills.
Then there’s the “tomacco” episode: In one of his ill-conceived entrepreneurial schemes, Homer Simpson cultivates a tomato-tobacco hybrid and sells it as tomacco. So does Rob Baur.
“This is probably the only growth chamber in Oregon that doesn’t have pot in it,” jokes Baur, opening a plant incubator that rests on the floor in the middle of his teenage daughter’s bedroom in Lake Oswego. Inside, bathed in full-spectrum light, is a single bushy green plant bearing two golf-ball-sized pieces of fruit — seemingly ordinary tomatoes ripening on the vine.
These aren’t pedestrian heirlooms. They are, as far as Baur or anyone else can discern, the world’s only known specimens of tomacco, fruit from a tomato vine that has been grafted onto the roots of a tobacco plant.
In “E-I-E-I-D’oh,” the now-infamous “Simpsons” episode that first aired in November 1999, Homer’s plump red tomaccos, rich with nicotine, addict the entire city of Springfield and promise to turn Homer into a gazillionaire. (Bart instructs a frenzied crowd of tomacco addicts who storm the family farm stand to have cash or food stamps ready.)
Since he can certify that the fruit from his tomacco plant contains no nicotine whatsoever — when ingested, the compound is toxic to humans even in small doses — Baur later this month plans to take a digital photo of the fruit, then pluck it from the vine, package it with a certificate of authenticity (signed by “Mr. Tomacco”) and offer it to the highest bidder on eBay.
“What can you do with it other than watch it melt into a red stain on a desktop?” Baur says. “I wouldn’t recommend eating it.”
But Ian Maxtone-Graham, a writer for “The Simpsons,” says that’s exactly what he intends to do with his specimen.
Baur has promised Maxtone-Graham, who penned the tomacco episode, the second fruit from his plant. In return, Maxtone-Graham has promised Baur an autographed copy of the “E-I-E-I-D’oh!” script, and has invited the chemist and his family to Los Angeles this summer to attend a “Simpsons” script-reading session on the Fox Studios lot.
“I’ll take his word that it isn’t poisonous, then I’ll eat it,” says Maxtone-Graham, who decided to have Homer grow tomacco simply because “tomacco” sounded better than “tobaccorn.” “But maybe I’ll feed it to one of my fellow writers first.”
With only one tomacco for sale, Baur’ s ITO (initial tomacco offering) seems promising, although Mr. Tomacco, being something of a realist, doesn’t expect bids to approach anywhere near the $150 million the Laramie tobacco company offered Homer for his last plant.
“I could just go down to Wizer’s and get a case of tomatoes and sell them as tomacco, but that would dilute the brand,” Baur quips. “I have no idea how big this is going to get. The funny thing is, if I had grafted an eggplant onto tobacco, nobody would care. It’s just because tomacco was on ‘The Simpsons.’ . . . Nobody ever called me up when I got a patent for fermenting sewage sludge.”
Now strangers call at all hours, sometimes at 4 in the morning. As news of his accomplishment has spread, Baur has become something of a cult figure among “Simpsons” fans worldwide, especially on the Internet, where the keywords “Rob Baur” and “tomacco” generate 10 pages of results from the Google search engine.
So linked is he with the “Simpsons” myth that Baur now serves as the show’s unofficial spokesman for the BBC. In November, minutes after Tony Blair, the British prime minister, made a guest appearance on “The Simpsons” — an episode that won’t be aired in England until later this month — a radio reporter in London phoned Baur and interviewed him live, grilling him for details about Blair’s portrayal.
Baur insists he wasn’t motivated by the promise of celebrity or riches. He says he created tomacco primarily out of scientific curiosity and, in part, to draw attention to the anti-tobacco message that’s inherent in his favorite “Simpsons” episode. (In “E-I-E-I-D’oh!” Lisa, the Simpsons’ conscience, warns Homer, “You’re about to unleash a great evil on the world,” and later admonishes Bart for craving something that tastes terrible — prompting her brother to bite into a gooey brown tomacco and proclaim, “It does, but it’s smooth and mild.”) Baur likes to point out that nicotine’s evolutionary function is to protect the tobacco plant from insects.
“People say I’m crazy for making tomacco,” says Baur, whose mother, a smoker, died of lung cancer. “But what’s crazy to me is that people have made an insecticide their recreational drug of choice.”
It all started last summer when Baur stumbled upon a 30-year-old chemistry textbook from his senior year at Western Washington University in Bellingham. The book contained grafting experiments tracing the evolutionary function of toxins produced by plants. In one example, the author grafted the top of a tomato plant onto the root system of a tobacco plant.
Baur, who grew up grafting varieties of pear trees on his family’s farm in Washington, bought some tomato and tobacco seeds and sowed them in his half-acre back yard. Homer simply planted the seeds and added a bit of plutonium as fertilizer. Creating tomacco in real life was a bit more involved.
As Baur’s plants matured, he transplanted a tobacco plant alongside a tomato plant. Then, over the course of a few weeks, he gradually weaned the tomato plant from its roots as he coaxed the stem to latch on to the severed roots of the neighboring tobacco plant. To his astonishment, the graft took, and the roots of the tobacco plant transferred water, nutrients and, presumably, nicotine, to the tomato plant.
Fearing his tomacco would contain toxic levels of nicotine, Baur decided to have it tested. Four laboratories turned him down, but Raymond A. Grimsbo, director of Intermountain Forensic Laboratories Inc. in Portland, agreed to do the job for free.
In November, an Intermountain technician pureed a ripe tomacco in a blender, ran it through a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer — a laboratory device used to identify chemical compounds — and determined that the fruit contained no nicotine whatsoever, even though the leaves of the plant did.
Pop-culture value aside, Grimsbo wondered if tomacco might have a more long-lived commercial application as a naturally insect-resistant, fruit-bearing plant.
“Whenever I grow tomatoes, it really ticks me off when bugs get at em,” says Grimsbo. “The real question is, when we take seeds from a mature tomacco and plant them, will we get another tomacco plant, or will we get tomatoes?”
Tomatoes. At least that’s the opinion of Jim Myers, professor of vegetable breeding and genetics in the Horticulture Department at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
“It’s a novel thing he’s done, definitely,” says Myers, who isn’t a fan of “The Simpsons.” “But the two species are so distantly related . . . there’s no way you could get it to reproduce.”
From a vegetable breeder’s perspective, Myers thinks Baur’s time would be better spent on a more promising hybrid, one that could simultaneously bear both a fruit and a tuber, like a potato crossed with a tomato.
Baur intends to give that one a try. If his phone ever stops ringing.