History of Tomatoes

History of Tomatoes

Americans may be in love with tomatoes today, but history shows us that the relationship got off to a rocky start. Read on to learn more.

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During Colonial Times, we wouldn’t put a tomato near our mouths, let alone try to eat one. Folklore had it that if you ate a tomato, its poison would turn your blood into acid. Instead, the colonists grew tomatoes purely for decoration.

Origins and Travels

We came around in the end of course, but the tomato bandwagon was almost full before we jumped onto it. Native peoples in South and Central America, where the plant originated, didn’t have any misapprehensions regarding the safety of eating tomatoes. In fact, some sources claim that they regarded tomato seeds as an aphrodisiac. The French name, pomme d’amour, or “apple of love,” suggests that they agreed, though some experts suspect that the name was a misunderstanding of the Spanish “pome dei Moro,” or “apple of the Moors.”

Probably the first tomatoes came from what today is Peru, and wild tomatoes can still be found in the Andes. By the time the conquistadors came to Central and South America, there was widespread cultivation of tomatoes, though there’s much debate about where tomatoes were first raised and about exactly how they made their way north to Mexico.

It’s also unclear whether Spanish explorers knew about the tomato’s reputation as a love aid, though they did think enough of the tomato to bring it back to Europe, where it was embraced long before we Americans succumbed to its charms. By the mid 16th century, it had been mentioned in a Nepalese cookbook. It is amusing to think that the tomato, which most of us think of as quintessentially Italian, in fact evolved on a different continent in a different hemisphere.

Even more bizarre, the fruit was not introduced to the U.S. and Canada via Mexico, where it was well established, but via European immigrants. Talk about taking the long way around.

What’s in a Name?

Why did tomatoes have such a bad reputation early in our history? The answer lies first in appearances and then in names. For starters, the close resemblance of tomatoes to deadly nightshade (so close that the two were occasionally mistaken for each other) did not encourage equanimity. Because of that resemblance, many early botanists recognized the relationship of tomatoes to the Solanaceae family, the name deriving from the Latin Solanum for “the nightshade plant;” Solanum itself became a finer division (what was later called a genus) under Solanaceae. Then came perhaps the first formal botanic classification, in 1692, by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who accepted the general classification Solanaceae but disputed that tomatoes belonged to solanum, because the fruits had more inner divisions than was normal in those plants.

Tournefort’s classification, far from redeeming the tomato from the taint of bad company, simply changed that company. He placed tomatoes in a new grouping of plants within Solanaceae, a classification he called Lycopersicon, meaning “wolf peach,” still not a name to conjure up the warm and fuzzies. This Greek term appears to follow an old German word for tomato, wolfpfirsich, which also translates into English as “wolf peach.” Exactly how old this word was, and how common, is hard to ascertain; like many “facts” in tomato history, considerable fog surrounds this one, and many sources remain either silent or contradictory on numerous points of interest.

Be that as it may, in this oft-repeated version the name wolfpfirsich referred to the tomato’s round shape, reminiscent of a peach, while the “wolf” modifier derived from the Germanic folk belief that werewolves could be called up using other members of the Solanaceae family, such as nightshade and wolfsbane. Many members of this family are indeed poisonous or hallucinogenic or both. That the family also contains many edible members (potatoes, chili peppers, and eggplants among them) did not help the tomato’s reputation, because of these only the eggplant was familiar to Europeans in the 16th century. The others, like the tomato, came from the New World and, like it, were suspect.

The cause was not advanced by the great botanist Carl Linnaeus, father of the six-level taxonomy still in use today (kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, species), and of the double-barreled Latinate naming system we all know and love, which gives first the genus and then the species. In 1753 Linnaeus rejected Tournefort’s separate genus Lycopersicon and placed tomatoes back in Solanum, calling the cultivated tomato the familiar S. Lycopersicon — both poison and wolves.

Just to seal the tomato’s fate, all parts of the plant, with the exception of its fruit, actually are poisonous. Perhaps to emphasize that exception, more recent botanists have backpedaled, adding esculentum (edible) to the beleaguered tomato’s name to give us Lycopersicon esculentum, or “edible wolf peach.” Unfortunately, this rear-guard action came too late to redeem the tomato for our Colonial forbears.

An entirely different theory for why the tomato got off to a rocky start in the US also focuses on names. This time, though, the names involved are the earliest European ones, such as the Italian “pomi d’oro” (golden apple) or the even more evocative French “pomme d’amour” (love apple). Such names, goes this theory, were hardly of the sort to make Puritans feel at ease with the tomato (see Tomatoes are Evil).

Redemption at Last

You can’t keep a good plant down, though, and despite its ill-deserved bad reputation, eventually the taste of the tomato won over the American public. It also may have gotten a big boost from a seemingly unlikely source: Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.

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According to the writings of Peter J. Hatch, director of the Monticello Gardens and Grounds, Jefferson grew tomatoes and his daughters and granddaughters used them in numerous recipes including gumbo soups. The Jefferson women also pickled them and, in general, promoted their use in cooking. This claim is (of course) disputed by other authorities, such dispute apparently being the name of the game in tomato scholarship. In an article written in 2000, Hatch said that in an 1824 speech given to the Albemarle Agricultural Society, Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, mentioned that though tomatoes were hardly known ten years prior, by 1824 everyone was growing and eating them.

Even if we lose the Jefferson-as-promoter-of-the-tomato theory, there appear to be any number of great anecdotes to choose from, all equally suspect historically speaking, but all entertaining. One gives us a Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson in 1830, who set out to eat a basket of tomatoes on the steps of the local courthouse, where a crowd collected to watch him foam at the mouth, twitch and generally carry on until he finally expired. When he didn’t, this legend avers, tomatoes were redeemed and were gradually accepted as food, though preferably in a highly processed form, after extended exposure to heat, vinegar, and spices. Tomato ketchup was popular long before salad tomatoes were.

What Jefferson and his family helped start (maybe), Joseph Campbell of Campbell’s soup fame finished. The tomato had made steady progress through the 19th century, so that by the 1870s or 80s, seed catalogues often offered several varieties of tomatoes. When Campbell came out with condensed tomato soup in 1897, the tomato’s place in American culinary history was assured.

Fruit or Vegetable?

Ever wonder why we consider a tomato a vegetable even though it is a fruit? You can lay part of the blame on the U.S. Supreme Court and maybe some on government greed. In 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed a 10 percent duty on vegetables, but none on fruit. A tomato importer named John Nix sued the tax collector for the port of New York, Edward L. Hedden, arguing that tomatoes, since they were “really” fruits, should be exempt from the tax. Read Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893) here.

The botanical claim was not in dispute; tomatoes, as the seed-bearing ripened ovary of a flower, are fruits. Yet in a triumph of ordinary language over scholarly, the highest court of the land ruled in 1893 that the tomato was a vegetable and therefore subject to the tariff. In his decision, Justice Gray wrote: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people … all these are vegetables … which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are … usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” If you’re not too distracted by the vision of a Supreme Court justice pontificating on the distinction between dinner and dessert, you can contemplate two further botanical curiosities: First, most of us have heard that the tomato is “really” a fruit, but did you know that it is even more really a berry? Yes, really. Furthermore, this plant that most Americans grow exclusively as an annual is actually a perennial and will grow as such in its native and wild state. In fact, if inclined, you can nurse a tomato through the winter indoors and set it out again the next year.

Back to the Present

Since we overcame our fear of being attacked by killer tomatoes, Americans have fallen in love with them. By the 1920s, a “hot tomato” was slang for an attractive woman, and though the term is no longer current, most Americans recognize it. Accolades continue today. The tomato is the state vegetable of New Jersey, and Arkansas has it both ways: the tomato is both the state fruit and the state vegetable. The USDA reports that each of us consumes close to 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes every year — and for the lucky amongst us, many of those tomatoes are homegrown.

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