A Cultural History Of Tomatoes

You say tomato, I say tomato. Have I made this joke before?
Hand Holding Tomatoes Of Varying Ripeness

The tomato is an incredibly versatile fruit (and yes, it’s a fruit, we’re not even going to get into that here). It can be found in the cuisine of cultures all over the world. Tomatoes appear in salsas, burgers, soups, salads, juices and Bloody Marys, among many, many other preparations. And because they’re so ubiquitous, you might not know exactly where they come from. What, exactly, is the history of tomatoes? Turns out, this crop had to go on a journey all around the world before attaining its current status as a worldwide staple.

The Origins Of The Tomato

You might associate tomatoes with Italian food, which has its tomato-covered pastas and pizzas, but actually, the tomato originated on the other side of the world. It’s believed that they’re native to western South America (modern-day Peru). The fruit was called tomatl by the local Aztecs, who used them in their cooking. They’ve been domesticated for over 2,500 years as of now, though no one is sure of the exact time period when they were first grown by humans.

If you stumbled upon the tomatoes of yore, they wouldn’t resemble the juicy, red tomatoes you see most often. Instead, they were smaller and mostly yellow (not that that kind of tomato is gone, of course). There were a few different varieties of tomato that naturally evolved in the Americas, and tomatoes seem to have spread throughout Mesoamerica. For millennia, the tomato was confined to the Americas. Then, there was the “discovery” of the “New World.”

The Arrival Of The Spanish

In the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas, setting off waves of colonialism that arrived in his wake. During this time, a number of foods were taken from the New World and brought back to the Old, including potatoes, corn and, as you can probably guess, tomatoes.

It’s possible that Columbus was the first European to encounter tomatoes, but Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés most likely is the person who first saw the usefulness of the fruit, as he encountered them during his sacking of the Aztec city Tenochtítlan. The Spanish brought the seeds back to Europe and also spread them throughout the rest of their colonies in the Caribbean. They adapted the Nahuatl word tomatl and called the food tomate.

Tomatoes were grown in Spain starting in the middle of the 1500s, but they took a while to catch on there. Spain’s climate was conducive to their growth, which made them easy to farm. And yet, they took until the early 17th century to become a regular part of Spanish meals. The tomato has become so ubiquitous in Spain that one of the most famous events in the country is La Tomatina Buñol, when thousands of people gather on August 31 to throw literal tons of tomatoes at each other (because, fun!). But the tomato’s initially slow path to acceptance in Spain is characteristic of the fruit’s spread throughout Europe.

The Tomato’s Spread Across Europe, Asia and Africa

It’s hard to imagine modern Italian food without tomatoes, but they’re not as central to the culture as Americans might believe. There was a lot of pushback in Italy when it first arrived.

The earliest reference to tomatoes in Italy goes back to 1548, but at the time, they were purely ornamental. In Florence, they would be used as tabletop decorations and not much else. One of the reasons for the bias against tomatoes is that the Italians saw them as being food for peasants (tomatoes grow low to the ground, which apparently gave them a low status at the time). Similarly, tomatoes are less filling than other foods used regularly in Italian cuisine, and so they were seen as kind of useless. It took a few centuries for the tomato to make its way into recipes and eventually become a staple. Still, the idea that Italy is tomato-centric is a bit of a misconception.

The name given to the tomato in Italy was not related to the original Nahuatl name, but instead was pomodoro. Italian botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli was the first to write about the fruit in Italian, calling them pomi d’oro. That name means “golden apples” and likely referred to a yellow variety of the fruit. Around the same time, the tomato traveled to France, where it was for a time called pomme d’amour, meaning “apple of love,” though the name switched to tomate later on. If you were to order a pomme d’amour now, you’d get a candied apple.

When the tomato reached England, they were possibly even less welcoming than the Italians. The tomato arrived there in the 1590s, and in 1597 a barber-surgeon named John Gerard published a book called Herball. In it, he wrote that the tomato was not only inedible but also poisonous. He wasn’t alone in believing that; the tomato is related to nightshade, a plant that is indeed deadly. And some tomatoes do include small amounts of tomatine, which is a deadly chemical compound, but there’s not enough in any tomato to kill a person. It would be over two centuries before the poison belief faded and the tomato became a regular part of British meals.

As a brief side note, tomatoes are often today associated with a famous Englishman: Shakespeare. During his plays, the people sitting in the cheap seats might throw rotten food if they didn’t like the performance. Today, tomatoes are the most famous rotten fruit for throwing at entertainers, but they wouldn’t have really been around during Shakespeare’s time. It wasn’t until 1883 that the first rotten tomatoes were thrown, but they caught on as the perfect fruit because when rotten, they make a mess but don’t do much harm to a person.

In any case, by the end of the 18th century, the tomato had established itself across Europe, but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that it started moving over into Africa and Asia. It was first brought to Syria by British consul John Barker, who oversaw its growth in the region. Soon, it spread to other parts of the region including Iran, and even made the jump to Asian countries like China. Over time, it became an important part of Middle Eastern cuisine.

The Tomato In North America

The tomato started in South America, but its route to North America was roundabout. The first record of tomatoes at all in North America comes from a 1710 text by herbalist William Salmon, who documented them in the Carolinas. These tomatoes likely came from the Caribbean, but because the country was British, many held the belief that tomatoes were poisonous.

As time passed, this belief slowly disappeared, and the cultivation of the crop spread throughout the new country. There are rumors that Thomas Jefferson may have been one of the earlier promoters of tomatoes, but the industry didn’t really explode in the United States until Alexander Livingston unlocked its potential. Despite his mother telling him that tomatoes were poisonous when he was a child, Livingston began looking into tomatoes in 1837 and continued to do so after he started his seed business in 1850. He attempted to cultivate tomatoes into a more commercial fruit, meaning they had to be more uniform in size and shape, as well as being tastier to eat. In 1870, he unveiled the Paragon tomato — the classic red variety that you most likely think of when you hear the word “tomato” — and the industry took off. When the Campbell family created the classic Campbell’s tomato soup 27 years later, it further entrenched the crop as a major part of American culture and cuisine.

Today, the United States is the third biggest producer of tomatoes, falling behind China and India (and China is ahead by over 20 million tons). In global monetary value, the tomato is the fourth largest crop in the world, falling behind only rice, wheat and soybeans. It can be found in important dishes in countries all over the world and has been adapted in countless ways. Next time you eat a tomato, you can appreciate just how far it traveled to get to you!

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