The Fascinating History of the Tomato

August 4, 2021  |  By Liz SanFilippo Hall
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Ripe tomatoes ready for a recipe during a culinary vacation with The International Kitchen.Billions of tomatoes are grown and consumed every year around the world. They’re ingredients in sauces, used as toppings in salads and on sandwiches, turned into ketchup, and the list of their uses goes on and on.

But the vegetables — or fruits (we’ll get to that controversy too) — weren’t always so ubiquitous. In fact, given their tumultuous history, it’s kind of amazing to think that, on average, every American consumes about 20 pounds of tomatoes each and every year. And nowadays, you’ll always find them in Italian kitchens too, whether you’re at a restaurant or in a cooking class. But it wasn’t always that way.

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Cherry tomatoes ready for a cooking class with The International Kitchen.The Killer Tomatoes

Europeans didn’t care – or perhaps they just didn’t realize – that Aztecans were eating tomatoes as early as 700 AD. Because by the 1700s, Europeans considered it a “poison apple.” Maybe their fear of the tomato was, in part, due to where it came from: in the early 16th century, Cortez and other Spanish conquistadors brought tomato seeds back with them, and even though the cultivation of tomatoes were widespread in Mesoamerica, the Europeans were often suspicious of things brought back from the New World.

Bowl of fresh tomatoes ready for a cooking classIt didn’t help that when aristocrats had them (along with other acidic foods), they were getting sick. But then again, they were eating tomatoes on pewter plates that were made with lead. The tomato’s acid would seep into the plate, and they ended up with lead poisoning. Nevermind the fact that the poor were eating tomatoes, and they were just fine; lesson learned: wooden plates help.

But that’s not the only reason that tomatoes had a bad rap. John Gerard, a barber-surgeon, published a book in 1597 called “Herballe” that propagated the notion that the tomato was “corrupt” and of “rank and stinking savour,” a notion that went largely unchallenged for some time, according to the Smithsonian. Gerad called the plant poisonous, when in fact only the stalk and leaves are, not the vegetable itself. But gossip hurts, and this gossip was only going to get worse.

Try a panzanella salad recipe featuring fresh tomatoes.

Tuscan bread salad, called panzanella, as made during our Tuscany cooking vacations.The British considered the plant poisonous simply because it resembled the poisonous wolf peach, which, coincidentally, is also the translation for the old German name for tomatoes, “wolfpfirsich.” The tomato also, unfortunately, resembled other plants in the Solanceae family, which are actually poisonous, such as henbane and deadly nightshade.

Make Tuscan “pappa al pomodoro.”

Over in the colonies, the reputation was no better. The colonists in the Americas thought that if you ate a tomato, your blood would actually turn into acid. Clearly none of these “myths” made the tomato all that appetizing.

Despite everything going against the plump red — sometimes green, sometimes orange — vegetable, the tides began to turn, and beginning in the 1800s, Europeans stopped using them as decorative ornaments (seriously) and actually eating them.

A fresh batch of homemade tomato sauce made during a cooking vacation in Italy with The International Kitchen.Try a recipe for Chianti Classico Sauce.

The Rise of the Tomato

Some people thought they were risking their very lives when they first took a bite of a juicy tomato, but luckily they survived and lived to talk all about the tomato’s wonderful flavor. Even so, it wasn’t until 1880 that the tide really turned and acceptance of the tomato grew. And it was all thanks to the pizza, which is thought to have been originally conceived in Naples around 1880, and the red sauce that topped it. Immigration from Europe to America then furthered the spread of the tomato, but even as the tomato’s popularity spread, not everyone was on board.

Burgundy vegetable marketIn the U.S. not only did fears of the vegetable’s poison linger, but fears also arose regarding a Green Tomato Worm that was supposedly three to five inches in length and poisonous too. Fortunately for the plant — and future ketchup bottles the world over — an entomologist later proved that these worms were absolutely harmless.

Finally, by the 1850s, tomatoes were popular just about everywhere in the world. Seed catalogs sold them. Campbell’s came out with tomato soup in 1897. And tomatoes were just getting started. Today, more than 3,000 pounds of tomatoes are grown in the U.S. alone every year.

Learn about pairing wine and tomatoes when cooking.

So are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables?

As for the fruit or vegetable debate, like the chicken and egg, it all depends on who you ask. Since tomatoes have seeds, some consider them a fruit. But there are other reasons people chose to call a tomato a fruit. For one, prior to the 1890s, fruits weren’t taxed. Later the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, which most horticulturists would agree with, and started to tax their purchase.

A modern take on a Caprese salad at the estate's Michelin-star restaurant.Whether you think a tomato is a fruit or vegetable, there’s one thing practically everyone can agree on: tomatoes are delicious in any form they take. Discover the many uses of tomatoes – from ingredients in pasta sauces to slices paired with buffalo mozzarella – during an Italian culinary vacation, and thank your lucky stars that Europeans decided to give tomatoes a shot, despite their nefarious past.

Craving tomatoes now? Try one of these recipes:

By Liz Hall

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