The Twisted Tale of the Tormented (Yet Tasty) Tomato

By Benni DeNinno

The tomato is an all-time favorite fruit enjoyed by people across the globe. Here in The States, we tend to associate it with Italian cuisine, thanks to pasta sauces and one of my favorite dishes, the Insalata Caprese. However, some may not be aware of the dark beginnings of the tomato’s relationship with the human appetite.

Tomatoes most likely originated in the region that is presently Peru; in fact, wild tomatoes still grow in the Andes mountains. Spanish explorers arrived to find them widely cultivated by the natives of the region and brought them back to Europe, where they made their way to nearby Italy and even as far as Nepal. Eventually, and bizarrely, the tomato went full circle, being (re)introduced to the North American continent by European immigrants a few centuries later. eloquently explains the tomato’s troubled tale:

“The name ‘tomato’ is derived from ‘tomatl’, its name in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people. The English form, ‘tomate’, first appeared in the 17th century and was later modified to ‘tomato’, probably under the influence of the more familiar ‘potato’. Most of these early fruits were yellow and became known as ‘manzanas’ (apples) and ‘pomi d’oro’ (apple of gold). They were considered poisonous but appreciated for their beauty.

“As the tomato arrived in Europe, the plant became associated with poisonous members of the Solanceae family, specifically henbane, mandrake and deadly nightshade, to which it bore more than a passing resemblance. Deadly nightshade is a poisonous plant that has been used as both a hallucinogenic drug and a beauty aid in different parts of Europe. The Latin name, Belladonna, means ‘beautiful woman’. In the medieval courts of Europe, ladies would apply a few drops of nightshade extract to their eyes to dilate their pupils, a look considered most fashionable at the time.

“The hallucinogenic properties of the plant caused visions and the sensation of flying. This most likely led to the association of the nightshades with witchcraft. German folklore claims that witches used nightshade plants to summon werewolves, a practice known as Lycanthropy. The common German name for tomatoes translates to “wolf peach” and because of this, they were universally avoided. In the 18th century the tomato species was named Lycopersicon Esculentum, which literally means, ‘edible wolf peach’.”

Tomatoes continued to have their good name smeared throughout the French Revolution until about 50 years later when the brazen Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson declared to an audience of hundreds from the steps of the Salem, Massachusetts, courthouse that he dared to eat a basketful of allegedly deadly, yet beautifully red, tomatoes. I guess that got people thinking twice about our rotund and ruddy ball of juicy goodness.

Finally, Joseph Campbell sealed the deal by producing and marketing his million-dollar idea – condensed tomato soup. This led to a victorious trend of good press in American culture: Andy Warhol, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Heinz Ketchup (which apparently, in the 1980s, was declared by the USDA a “vegetable” in order to rationalize President Reagan’s school lunch budget cuts). Thomas Jefferson and his family also helped popularize tomatoes, which they used extensively in soups, gumbos and pickling recipes.

Today, tomatoes are used regularly and widely, embraced by all cultures and revered for their wide array of varieties and uses. Did you know that the average American consumes about 20 pounds of tomatoes each year? And for the lucky ones like us in the FHCSA, most of those are homegrown.

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