History of the Tomato


by Diana Viola

There is no fruit (yes, the tomato is a fruit) more beloved than the tomato.  We rush to plant our own tomatoes in spring, brag about the size, savor the freshness of a summer tomato.  The tomato is the gift of the new world to the old. 

In ancient history, the early peoples of South American, in the areas now known as Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, mastered the cultivation of their dietary staples, beans and maize. Growing wild in their fields was a vining weed with globular fruits that ripened to a deep orange. Yes, the tomato.  Since manicured fields were not a priority when farming methods were primitive, the tomato made its way into the corn harvest. It was accepted as edible, and eventually became a cultivated crop. Once tamed, it's history continued, and the tomato found its way to Mexico. Here it was adopted by the Nahuatl Indians of Mexico, who named it tomatl.

Tomato history continued to evolve.  When the The Spanish conquistadors reached Mexico, they discovered the food markets of Tenochtitlán (today's Mexico City). The conquistadors were astonished by the variety of foods and the orderly sale of foodstuffs in the market. The first person to write of the tomato was Bernardino de Sahagún who made note of a prepared sauce that was offered for sale. In the sauce were tomatoes, hot red peppers, hot green peppers and pumpkin seeds. In the 16th century, the Spanish brought their food discoveries back to the old world.

The tomatoes may have been a pale variety as they were given the name 'golden apple' (pomo d'oro) by a Sienese botanist, Pietro Andrea Mattioli. Despite the poetic name, they were considered to be a noxious food of little nutritional value. One theory held that tomatoes were poisonous, while a contradictory theory asserted that they were an aphrodisiac.

Europeans were not alone in their suspicions as the tomato was regarded with skepticism when it traveled from its native home in the southern hemisphere of the Americas, upward to North America.  History moved on.

Tomato Sauce

Today tomato sauce is a worldwide staple, but the first recipe for tomatoes with pasta wasn't written until 1839 when Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, offered a recipe for 'vermicelli co le pommodoro.' A mere thirty years later, La Cuciniera Genovese offered recipes for purées, soups, distinctly different sauces for meats, chicken, veal and pasta. Tomatoes had arrived.

Their arrival was accompanied by a heated debate questioning whether the tomato was a fruit or a vegetable. The debate was of such intensity that it was finally sent to the Supreme Court of the United States for adjudication. The Supreme Court declared the tomato to be a vegetable, supposedly ending a debate which continues to this day.

The tomato suffered with disrepute during its history.  This once suspicious vegetable is now considered to be one of our healthiest foods, being a significant source of vitamins A and C. Additionally, in recent years, the tomato has been found to be the richest source of lycopene, one of the carotenoids. In 1995 Harvard University published studies identifying a positive association between the intake of tomatoes and tomato-based foods, and the diminished risk of prostate cancer. Additional studies have been instituted at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and the University of North Carolina in the US.

The tomato is also distinguished for its power as a galvanizing force that draws people together. A steaming bowl of pasta with tomato sauce magnetically pulls groups of people to the table. Since the tomato is a plant that everyone wants to grow, those green vines bring neighbors together to share experiences, or to brag about the resulting size of their prized tomatoes. We understand the impulse to give in to tomato pride, and forgive the proud gardener for bragging.

Long live the tomato.  May its history continue. 

©Diana Viola

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