Its hard to imagine that once upon a time a huge part of the world thought tomatoes were deadly. How can you live without them? The Aztecs never feared them. The tomatl has been part of their cuisine since the 8th century, but the British and Europeans certainly did, and for more reasons than their relation to the deadly nightshade. The bad rap started before anyone classified them in the plant kingdom.
Seeds from Mesoamerica arrived in Europe in the days of the Spanish conquistadors and Cortez’s travels to Mexico and South America. It’s unclear which party brought the seeds to the continent, but when they arrived the plants were grown for ornamental purposes in the flower garden. Naturally, a fruit so beautiful must be tasted, but the results weren’t good – everyone who ate these exotic oddities died. So the tomato was dubbed the ‘poison apple’, but it wasn’t the fruit’s fault. It was the dinnerware. Only the rich had ornamental gardens in the early 1500s, and they ate off of pewter tableware, a metal which contains lots of lead. The acid in the tomatoes drew out the lead, and numerous people from high society died from lead poisoning due to this chemical reaction.
A few decades later, in 1544 the plant was classified as part of the Solanaceae family – a poisonous nightshade, and also as a mandrake – by the Italian herbalist, Pietro Mattioli. Now it was known as both the ‘golden apple’, ‘love apple’ and the ‘poison apple’. Talk about confusing! Why he decided it was a mandrake, a plant whose root often looks like a man, and has both hallucinogenic and aphrodisiac qualities remains a mystery. He was correct in classifying the tomato as a relative of nightshade, but the fruit contains harmless traces of the toxin, while the plant is poisonous if eaten… but many plants have edible and non-edible parts. And while modern tomatoes are almost always reddish, the early imported seeds were obviously yellow judging by Mattioli’s herbal plate to the right.
Eventually someone questioned how it was that the Aztecs weren’t dying from eating those rich red globes, but anyone who ate them in England did. At some point after 1590 this discrepancy was explained as having to do with the hot climate in Mexico making it safe to consume the fruits. This brilliant conclusion was arrived at by John Parkinson, apothecary to King James I, who said that tomatoes ‘coole and quench the heate and thirst of the hot stomaches’ It would be a long time before anyone realized that it was the plates, and not the tomatoes that were deadly.
In 1553 some Flemish guys named Dodoens and l’Ecluse compiled the Histore des Plants in England, a tome rife with errors, which included something about the tomato plant that I can’t uncover. Then in 1597 one John Gerard copied their book and claimed it as his own under the title, Herball. He increased the amount of misinformation portrayed by mispelling important nomenclature names, which is what really put the tomato in the worst possible light. The surgeon wrote that the entire plant was ‘of ranke and stinking savour.’ Then went on to say that it’s fruit was corrupt, when its the only part of the plant that is not. And so based on ideas pulled from thin air, it would be over 200 years before anyone in Britain of the New World colonies would ever enjoy the wonders of a tomato.
Finally, people on the west side of the Atlantic started eating them in the US colonies about 1670 in the Carolinas, and the now accepted as edible fruit slowly spread to many areas. Not just because in the early years the settlements were far flung, the myths followed the seeds. Time and that incredible taste would see the superstitions and fear fade though, and by 1822 there were recipes using tomatoes everywhere in North America – hundreds of them.
Now it was popular to grow tomatoes, but you know what comes next don’t you? That frightening thing called the tomato worm, which arrived in tomato patches everywhere in 1830. It was said that these huge horned green worms could kill you if it touched your skin. One account in a newspaper said they were as deadly as a rattlesnake, and the tomato once again fell from favor. That is until a wise entomologist named Benjamin Walsh insisted that the terrifying tomato worm was totally harmless.
By the 1850s tomatoes were highly regarded by both farmers and kitchen gardeners alike. Now everyone became interested in the myriad of ways this tangy fruit could be put to use. A lot of experimenting with different varieties ensued, and the creation of new ones followed. With the invention of canning toward the end of the 19th century its value grew even greater, especially for one Joseph Campbell who discovered it as a marvelous way to preserve his condensed tomato soup.
Naturally, in any historical accounting of the totally awesome tomato, we can’t leave out the perfect bearer of it’s tantalizing taste. In fact as beloved as the tomato was for so many other dishes and condiments, its popularity skyrocketed with the invention of pizza in 1880. Now the popularity spread throughout Europe, nothing with such a divine flavor could possibly be harmful.
Today it’s the #1 fresh food sold in the United States. Gardeners around the globe painstakingly select the varieties they will grow each season, and the tomato growing competition begins in the seed tray. It takes place in families, neighborhoods, and even workplaces everywhere. Who can grow this season’s biggest tomato? Who has the largest, most beautiful plants? Whose harvest is most bountiful?
We await tomato harvest season with huge anticipation annually. That first tomato sandwich filled with a just picked juicy orb is worth its weight in gold. We eat them 8 days a week and preserve them in dozens of ways. And we’ve got so many cultivars to pick from, making every season a delicious adventure.