**In celebration of Women’s History Month, I’ll be posting about women in the pizza community every few days this month. The pizza biz is pretty male-dominated, so let’s take this opportunity to throw the spotlight onto some of the women who are doing amazing work in the pizza world. This one’s a real doozy because I didn’t even know about Tillie Lewis until a few weeks ago and now my mind is completely blown. Read on…
California tomato maven Rob DiNapoli wrote this piece about the unsung hero of the US canned tomato industry, Tillie Lewis. Find out more in Kyle Elizabeth Wood’s new book Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen. Tillie is largely responsible for the popularity of the San Marzano tomato in America.
Born Tillie Ehrlich in 1896 to Jewish immigrants in the New York tenements, Tillie Lewis rose to fame and prominence as a business woman who brought the cultivation of the famed San Marzano to America and was coined ‘The Tomato Queen’ before passing on April 30th, 1977.
Tillie Lewis formed Flotil Foods in 1935, (the name a hybrid of her Italian lover and financier Florindo Del Gaizo ‘Flo’ and Tillie ‘Til’) after a 50% tariff was levied on imported Italian tomatoes. Fueled by $10,000 in cash, Italian processing equipment and bags of San Marzano tomato seeds, Tillie settled on Stockton California as her new home because the climate and soil were similar to Naples Italy.
Unfortunately I never met Tillie Lewis as I joined our family’s Sun Garden Packing Co. four years after Tillie’s passing but I enjoyed my grandfather’s stories about how she would travel unescorted to New York during the war years and return with suitcases of cash collected from her distributors!
In 1984 the renamed Tillie Lewis Foods, once the largest tomato processor in the world, closed its doors. Just before their closure I negotiated the purchase of the respected FLOTTA brand along with several sauce recipes from Tillie’s nephew Al Heiser. The FLOTTA brand is still popular among Philadelphia and DC pizzerias.
It’s fitting that during Woman’s History Month we recognize a business woman who rose from poverty to bring the famed San Marzano tomato and thousands of jobs to American soil. Bless you Tillie Ehrlich Lewis!
(written by Rob DiNapoli)
I’ve been corresponding via email with Kyle Elizabeth Wood, author of Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen, and she had this amazing tidbit to add.
“I think I mentioned she created the first do it yourself mini-pizza kit (Appian Way did it, as well as others). To use excess tomato paste, she made mini cans of paste, added a packet of dry flour dough and sold it as a single serve pizza kit. It was a flop. However, her young whippersnapper office mate at career/life’s end, George Visgilio, became CEO of Ogden then created (and still owns) Boboli Pizza, based on the same idea. George added a few stories to the book.”
AWESOME info!!! Thanks, Kyle.