From Poison to Passion: How The Fruit Recovered from its Bad Rep
From American ketchup to Italian pizza to Indian curries (for that matter what would a parma or a meat pie be without it!), with its ubiquitous presence laying the foundation for pretty much every cuisine on earth, it’s hard to believe the humble tomato hasn’t always been universally embraced.
Originating in Meso-America the name “tomato” derives from “tomatl,” its name in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people. It then made its far flung journey across the Atlantic with the arrival of the Spanish explorer Cortez, and it was here that the first wrinkle in it’s story appeared.
Tomatoes—scientifically Lycopersicon esculentum—are in the Solanaceae family, which includes deadly nightshades and other poisonous plants; so part of the tomato taboo was guilt by association. By the 1700s, the Europeans feared and reviled the tomato, and all because of a misconception! A nickname for the fruit was “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth was stranger still. Wealthy Europeans at the time used pewter plates, which were high in lead content and when the acidic tomatoes were placed on the plates, it would leach lead from them, resulting in tragic lead poisoning deaths. Of course the peasants with their wooden plates had no such issues but then no one asked them!
Of course, that all changed with the invention of the pizza in Naples around 1880, from there the tomato grew widespread in popularity throughout Europe and around the world. By the eighteenth century, tomatoes had found their way into British soups, but it took until the early nineteenth century for them to appear more widely in French recipes. In India, the Bengali name for tomato is “biliti begun”, meaning “English [or foreign] aubergine [eggplant],” indicating a colonial-era introduction. Tomatoes also arrived in Africa via some combination of invaders, explorers, missionaries, and traders and were found throughout the continent by the late nineteenth century.
Today, tomatoes are consumed around the world in countless varieties: truss, heirlooms, romas, cherry tomatoes—to name a few. More than 130 million tons of tomatoes are produced commercially every year. But still some of the tomato’s night-shady past seems to have followed it into pop culture, whether it’s the cheesy 1978 black comedy “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” or the all-important Rotten Tomatoes score. The luscious red fruit is firmly entrenched in our minds…and our plates!