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Tomato: The Fruit with the Poisoned History

Like a lot of fruits, vegetables and livestock, the modern tomato looks very little like it did before agriculture.  Before it was first cultivated, wild tomatoes were much smaller, probably the size of cherries, and were most likely yellow.  No one knows for sure because in their native Central America and western South America, no one bothered to keep records of the gradual agricultural development of the tomato.

By the time the tomato made its way north to the Aztec Empire, it started to take on the round, red appearance it has today.  The word tomato comes from tomatl ([to ˌmatɬ], or “toh MATS”), originating from Nahuatl, the main language of the Aztecs.  It means “fat water” or “fat thing”.  The Aztecs developed the fruit further, coming up with something they called xitomatl ([ˌʃit o ˈmatɬ], or “SHEET oh MAHTS”).  Xitomatl translates roughly as “fat thing with navel”.  When the Spanish arrived in the New World, this is the version of the tomato that they encountered.  For whatever reason, they fell back on the previous version of the fruit when looking for something to call it in Spanish: tomate.
Tomatoes probably looked more like this, originally.

The tomato was just one of the new delights exported to Europe from the New World.  Foods like chocolate and potatoes quicky enjoyed great popularity among Europeans.  Tomatoes, however, took a bit longer to catch on.  It had a couple of strikes against it when it came to Europe in the early 16th century.  For one, it was classified by Italian botanist Pietro Andrae Matthioli as a mandrake, a plant related to the solanaceae family.  This was close, but not quite right: the tomato is of the nightshade family.  Being identified as a nightshade would have been enough of a PR problem, since the nightshade family contains a number of poisonous plants, like the belladonna, the rosary pea and the European yew.  While the mandrake family contains a number of poisonous plants itself, one thing that made it worse in the eyes of many Europeans is that the mandrake itself had a reputation as an aphrodisiac.  That gave the tomato a touch of immorality, unfair as it was.  At the time, it was commonly believed that the mysterious fruit given by Eve to Adam in the book of Genesis that precipitated the loss of Paradise was a mandrake (though the book itself doesn’t make clear what this fruit was supposed to be.  Different traditions hold that this fruit could have been many things, including grapes, pomegranates, mushrooms, wheat and other things.)  If this was true, perhaps the tomato is this devious fruit?  Perhaps.  Whatever the cause, that’s what gave the tomato another name: the love apple.
Matthioli’s drawing of a tomato plant.  He even gave instructions on how to cook and eat them (fry ‘em in oil).  He thought it was a mandrake, and wasn’t sure if it was a fruit or a vegetable.

Love apple sounds a bit salacious, but it’s not such a bad nickname to have.  This isn’t to suggest anyone was confusing the tomato with the fruit we know as the apple today.  At the time, apple was a generic name for any fruit that was not a berry (but including nuts). The nickname its reputation suffered from the most was poison apple.  This came from a belief that tomatoes themselves were poisonous.  Europeans got this impression from the fact that people who ate tomatoes did in fact die from poisoning.  The tomatoes got the blame, but it wasn’t really their fault.  The problem came from the fact that those who could afford it bought pewter dishes.  Pewter is a metal that isn’t common today, but was very popular in Europe, particularly for dishes, from Roman times until the 19th century.  Pewter is an alloy that’s mostly tin, but also includes copper, bismuth, antimony and often lead.  The poisonous quality of lead wasn’t really understood (or at least accepted) at the time, so no one saw the problem with making plates out of it.  When tomatoes hit the pewter plates, the highly acidic fruit rapidly absorbed the lead, thus delivering a potent poison.  This gave the tomato a bad reputation and kept it out of finer kitchens for a long time.  Still, people liked the look of tomatoes, so they were often grown in gardens for ornamental purposes, and might even appear in a bowl inside the house, just to look at.
Pewter dishware, circa 1800.  Not all pewter was made with lead, but it was common.  Pewter dishes are still manufactured and used today, but lead-free, of course.

If you weren’t rich enough to afford pewter, you might be more inclined to eat tomatoes (and would certainly be more inclined to survive eating them).  Poorer Europeans gradually figured out that the tomato was harmless, and tasted pretty good.  The same thing happened in English-speaking America.  While people figured out tomatoes were okay to eat, no one really had any ideas of how to prepare them.  One early idea was ketchup, which first appeared in a cookbook in Georgia in 1801, and the tomato took off in America, replacing the more popular bases of ketchup (originally a Taiwanese invention), which included mushrooms, walnuts and sardines.  As pewter disappeared from the world’s kitchens, tomatoes started landing in salads and on plates.  It was in Georgia and the Carolinas where the tomato was first accepted as edible in the United States, but it took a while for its popularity to spread north and west.  

The lack of recipes using tomatoes delayed their acceptance, and the old misunderstandings also held the tomato back.  Besides lingering fears of the tomato’s toxicity, there was also the green tomato worm, which appeared in tomato patches and brought terror with it in the 1820s and 1830s.  The green tomato worm was a green worm about four inches long and with a horn at its posterior.  This worm was widely believed to be venomous itself, worse than the tomatoes it lives on.  A one Dr. Fuller of New York claimed that the green tomato worm was “as venomous as a rattlesnake,” and would spit venom at you.  When its venom touched human skin, it would immediately swell up, leading to the death of the victim within a couple of hours.  Entomologist Benjamin Walsh understood the tomato worm better, and reported that it wasn’t toxic and it wasn’t coming to kill us all.  All it was interested in were the leaves of the tomato plant; it was harmless.
The green tomato worm.  Ugly?  Maybe.  But harmless to you.  Maybe not to your tomato plants.

Parallel with its spread in the United States, the tomato started to enjoy popularity in southern Italy in the late 18th century, which is when the first records of tomato sauces and pastes date from.  By the late 19th century, southern Italian cuisine was dominated by the tomato.  Italian emigrants from this region brought their cuisine with them, and today, the tomato is inseparable from Italian cuisine in many people’s minds.  (The tomato never caught on with the same zeal in northern Italy, which retained the more traditional cream-based recipes favored throughout Italy for centuries.)

By 1900, Joseph Campbell was canning tomatoes, and soon after that, tomato soup.  The tomato really didn’t take off worldwide until the late 19th century.  Today there are many varieties of tomato, and they’re consumed in nearly every country in the world.  The myth of the poisonous tomato does persist, in that some believe it’s dangerous to eat nightshade plants, due to their association with the poisonous plants they’re related to.  But not everyone resembles their own relatives that closely.  Mitt Romney’s father supported labor unions; Al Capone’s brother was a Prohibition agent; tomatoes are a nightshade.
Some of Joseph Campbell’s early products.  A canner with a thousand soups.


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