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The Tomato

A Brief History of the Perhaps Not So Humble Tomato

by Gary D. Palmer

Now Found Throughout the World, It Was Not Always So

Now Found Throughout the World, It Was Not Always So

Origins

tomatoThe tomato still grows wild in the Peruvian Andes, the land of its origin, but the small, wild tomato does not bear a great deal of resemblance to the plump, red, juicy food item that you are likely to pluck from the vegetable bin at your local supermarket.

It seems, though, that the ancient Peruvian tribes who would have discovered the plant made scant use of it as a food source.  That privilege belonged to the more northerly tribes of Central America.  It seems an unidentified wild ancestor of the tomato somehow made its way north.  Exactly when that happened is not known, but it was at some point in time several thousand years prior to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 16th century. There it was domesticated, and there it was discovered by the Spaniards who, in turn, introduced it to the Old World.

From the New World to the Old

The Aztecs called it xitomatl while other Central American tribes called it tomati.  The Spanish called it manzana or apple, apparently because that is what they thought it was.  From Spain it made its way to Italy where this "apple" was named pomi d'oro (golden apple), obviously becuase it was a yellow or golden tomato variety. One writer described it as being eaten with "oil, salt and pepper".

Red tomatoes were also known, but not yet in Italy.  It is said that they were introduced, not from Spain but from Morocco.  When they arrived, to differentiate them from their yellow skinned counterparts, they were given the name of pomo d'Moro (apple of the Moors).  A French visitor, intrigued by this new food of his Italian hosts, mistranslated that when he reported upon it upon his return home.  For him it became pomme d'amour or "love apple."  Thus began its reputation as an aphrodisiac, and to this day there are some who cite the tomato's rich, red color; its heart shaped fruit, and its long established reputation as "proof" that eating fresh tomatoes increases sexual desire.

In other parts of Europe, however, particularly the north, the tomato gained a reputation not as an aphrodisiac, but as something quite noxious.  At worst it was thought poisonous, and at best unhealthy.  This is because of a perceived close family relationship to poisonous members of the Solanceae family, specifically henbane, mandrake and deadly nightshade.  This fearsome reputation severely limited the tomato's usage in those nations.  In England, for instance, tomatoes, if they were used in cooking at all, were used only as flavorings for soups and sauces.

Noxious or Delicious?

The tomato did come with English Colonists to the New World, but the plant was cultivated primarily as an ornamental with possible secondary usage in herbal remedies.  Tomatoes were said, for instance, to be particularly useful for their "pustule removing properties."

The situation did change in the Colonies, but it was gradual.  Tomato consumption began first in the south, perhaps due to the closer proximity to the Caribbean and other Spanish settlements.  In the Northeast resistance remained.  Thomas Jefferson was a tomato eater, having perhaps been influenced by the French, but most of his contemporaries were not.  What finally broke down the barriers of suspicion is unclear, but it may date from an incident in 1820.  It is said that a Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson promised a public demonstration.  He pledged that at noon on September 26th he would appear in front of the Boston court house where he would personally consume a bushel of tomatoes.  To the shock and possible chagrin of the thousands who had assembled to watch the poor man die of this poisonous meal, he ate the tomatoes and lived to tell about it, seemingly suffering no ill effects.  It is difficult to know how accurate this tale is, but we do know that tomatoes did begin to find their way onto many an Early American table.

Now the use of tomatoes is widespread.  It is a necessity in a great many Italian dishes.  It is a vital ingredient in many sauces, soups, salads and side dishes.  It is used fresh cut, stewed, pickled, pureed, stuffed, glazed, deviled, grilled, fried and, of course, canned. There is tomato paste, tomato sauce, tomato ketchup, and tomato juice.  85% of American gardens contain tomatoes, and every year rhe average North American consumes some 80 pounds of the fruit.

There are varieties galore, including some that are never really seen in the fresh vegetable section of your grocery store.  California truckers proudly note that for the commercial market they transport thousands upon thousands of truckloads of tomatoes each year with a typical load consisting of "50,000 pounds of tomatoes, which is about 300,000 tomatoes."  Your ordinary, garden variety tomato would, however, be crushed and damaged beyond use in that kind of a load, so commercial varieties have been developed that have been selectively bred for this kind of use.  "One of the qualities they have is a much thicker skin than fresh tomatoes, it is this property that allows them to survive the weight of (all these) tomatoes without suffering much damage."

The Supreme Court Decision

As a final point, it should be mentioned that the tomato, as we know it, is in fact a gargantuan berry.  The biggest on record is a 7 pounder grown in Oklahoma.  Being a berry, it is a fruit.  Or is it?  In 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a tax case that was before it.  An importer fought against a tax being levied on imported vegetables on the grounds that tomatoes were not technically a vegetable, and therefore should not be so taxed.  He lost.  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 are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery and lettuce, 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."

Thus, in the eyes of the American justice system, this fruit is a vegetable.

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