The Van Trump Report

The Strange History of Tomatoes… They Weren’t Always Popular!

Tomatoes are a reliable favorite among chefs and eaters alike. But up until the mid- to late-1800s, they were shunned by many Americans and Europeans due to a long-time belief that they were poisonous.

The tomato is native to western South America and Central America. The English word tomato actually originates from the Aztec word for the fruit, tomatl. In 1519, it’s believed that Cortez discovered tomatoes growing in Montezuma’s gardens and first brought seeds back to Europe where they were planted strictly as ornamental curiosities. Most likely the first variety to reach Europe was yellow in color since in Spain and Italy they were known as pomi d’oro, meaning yellow apples.      

In the southern part of Europe, tomatoes were more readily accepted, but there was a lot of opposition in the north. One reason was that it looked like a local poisonous fruit known as the “wolf peach.” Eventually, though, some wealthy aristocrats began experimenting with the exotic food, which many credit to the belief that it was an aphrodisiac. 

Unfortunately, the pewter plates used by Europe’s upper class were high in lead content, leading to an inadvertent toxic combo. Because tomatoes have a high acid content, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, eventually causing many deaths due to lead poisoning. Science at the time wasn’t able to make the connection, so tomatoes were singled out as the cause, garnering them the nickname “poison apple.”

During this same time, peasants had also been sampling tomatoes, which they ate on wooden plates and therefore didn’t experience any adverse effects. Because they were scorned by the rich, they were cheap and became especially popular among poor Italians, which was the first country in Europe to cultivate the plant.

Then pizza was invented. This lowly pie was initially a food of convenience for laborers that were rushing between work. In fact, it was once described as a “species of the most nauseating cake.” That opinion had changed by the late-1800s though as pizza – along with its tomato toppings – was embraced across Europe.

Tomatoes caught on a little earlier in America thanks to the flood of Italians who emigrated to the new continent and brought their beloved tomatoes with them. There was still a lot of uneasiness though, thanks to long-held myths and a new concern that emerged – the Green Tomato Worm. According to The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs and Cultivator Almanac (1867), it was believed that a mere brush with such a worm could result in death. That poisonous quality was believed to be transferred to the tomatoes they were found in as well.

Thankfully, a well-respected entomologist named Benjamin Walsh proved that while the worms were quite ugly, they were nonetheless harmless. As the latest fear subsided and along with the rise of agricultural societies, farmers began investigating the tomato’s use and experimented with different varieties. By the 1850s, the name tomato was so highly regarded in America that it was used to sell other plants at market. (Sources: Tasting Table, Smithsonian, Atlas Obscura)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *