Historically it was the Spanish Conquistadors who brought tomatoes to Europe after many of their explorations. At first it was eyed suspiciously by the Italians, as they are part of the Nightshade family, known for poisonous species. Originally called tomatl the early crops resembled cherry tomatoes, and many species were yellow. The Italian name, pomodoro, means “apple of gold” but they weren’t calling it that until after a lot of tastings, when no one died. It was then that the beloved fruit was welcomed into the local cuisines, as cooks enthusiastically turned it into sauces and dishes throughout the country. Some botanists declared it to be a species of eggplant at first, which lessened the fears a bit, since eggplants were widely eaten in southern Italy already. In spite of its classification as a fruit, it is highly unlikely that anyone embraced it for dessert. The plant took quickly to the mild and sunny climate of Southern Italy, but in northern European countries, it didn’t catch on for a few more centuries, where the shiny red fruit was highly suspect and shunned by locals.
Since the Spanish explorers were no slouches in the their travels, they introduced tomatoes to some Caribbean islands and ultimately to Asia, as well as their homeland, Spain, where it was consumed in the 1600s.
Initially, tomatoes were only eaten by poor people until the 1800’s, especially Italians (author’s note: the more food histories I research, the more it is clear that the poor and lower classes of the populace were confined to some of our most popular foods which were originally shunned by the elite, namely lobster, tuna and tomatoes; so maybe being poor had its advantages). An interesting theory regarding tomatoes is that the elite used pewter dishes and cookware, which contained high amounts of lead. Any acidic food would leech out the lead and cause serious illness and eventual death. Lower classes used wooden bowls and utensils, so no worries about lead poisoning (besides, if you’re hungry, a few sliced tomatoes probably looked pretty good).
America’s first foodie and gardener extraordinaire, Thomas Jefferson grew over three hundred varieties of vegetables at his Monticello estate, introducing numerous crops which heretofore had been considered Mediterranean, the tomato among them. In the 1820s, his daughter and granddaughter, both devoted cooks, created numerous recipes. And because the tomato was virtually unknown in America during Jefferson’s lifetime, his dinner guests never questioned their host’s intentions. After all, he was always experimenting with new and delicious vegetable species. Why would he want to poison anyone? Several decades later, a better, heartier breed was cultivated and snapped up by Campbell Soup Company, taking the once-vilified vegetable to a new high with their canned condensed tomato soup in 1895. Soon tomatoes found their way to salads, sauces and stews. How interesting that Jefferson was instrumental in bringing the U.S. some of their favorite comfort foods, namely tomato soup, ice cream and mac and cheese.
While Jefferson was serving his dinner guests the exotic vegetable, immigrants poured into East Coast ports, bringing their native vegetables and fruits with them, not the least of which was tomatoes. Soon small Italian restaurants popped up in New York City featuring the beloved red sauce of their native Italy, along with a new creation called pizza. Naples, Italy was the birthplace of the popular margherita pizza, which consisted of tomato sauce, cheese and basil leaves on a crust, emulating the three colors of the Italian flag. Named in honor of Queen Margherita, it debuted sometime in the 1880s and was an instant hit. Neapolitan immigrants began serving it in their local restaurants on the East Coast, and it was only a matter of time until its popularity exploded across the country. Today, of course, it is one of America’s favorite foods, and to think it all started with a vegetable which was perceived to be poisonous.
Americans consume over 12 million tons of tomatoes annually. Little wonder. Who can imagine life without ketchup, tomato soup, pizza and pasta sauce. American’s favorite vegetable, the once poisonous tomato forms a foundation for some of our favorite foods. Easy to grow, delicious to eat, a cook’s dream, who can live without it?