Cynthia Lejeune Nobles
September 13, 2012
The luscious tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) got a bum rap when Spanish explorers introduced Europe to what they called the pomo d’oro (golden apple).
What we know as a garden variety round, red tomato started out yellow or orange, was the size of a grape, and grew wild in South America’s Andes Mountains, where it was used as a decorative plant. It eventually made its way north to Mexico, where the Aztecs called it “tomatl,” thus setting the foundation for its modern name.
Cortez is credited with bringing tomato seeds to Spain after he conquered Mexico City in 1521. But even though the Aztecs had cultivated and consumed this tropical perennial since prehistory, when the still-small and yellowish tomato reached 16th-century Europe, virtually no one, including the Spanish, would consider eating it.
Like the potato and eggplant, the tomato belongs to the infamous nightshade family called Solanaceae, a group of foods containing harmful alkaloids that can affect the nervous system and joints. Tomato leaves and stems do contain the alkaloid tomatine, a toxic substance. But as the New York Times reported in 2009, it would take at least a pound of tomato leaves to harm a human.
Exploration-era Europeans were aware of nightshades’ toxic leaves and stems, but they wrongfully assumed that, like the hallucinogenic mandrake root, poison was found in the fruits of the whole family. Adding to the worry of death by toxins, the tomato was thought to cause gout and cancer.
By 1550, the Italians had bred the small orange tomato into something that was redder and deeply ridged, like a peeled orange. During this time they also found out that none of the known varieties would make them keel over. Soon, the tomato was a hit in Italy for two reasons: the region’s weather and soil were extremely well-suited for cultivation, and Italy had a huge poor population, which, of necessity, dared to eat tomatoes.
By the 17th century, a new larger red variety was growing throughout the Mediterranean.
But although Europeans finally deemed it safe to eat, the tomato still couldn’t catch a break as it was accused of causing lust, which earned it the same nickname as the supposedly aphrodisiacal eggplant, a “love apple.”
Even though no one is sure if Thomas Jefferson actually ever ate a tomato, our third president was growing the curious fruit in 1781. (Botanically the tomato is a fruit, but in 1893 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was a vegetable for the purposes of trade). Later, a French refugee reportedly introduced the plant to Philadelphia, and the story goes that it found its way to Massachusetts by way of an Italian painter.
By 1800, the plant and its colorful grooved orbs festooned the gardens of the Northeast, but they were still used there only for ornamentation.
Although there are many tales about how the tomato got its reprieve in the U.S., Louisiana certainly gets some tribute for finally busting the poison tomato myth. Tomatoes likely came to our state with Caribbean immigrants, and records show that 18th-century Louisiana residents grew them.
It is certain that by 1812 the food-crazy folks in New Orleans were regularly cooking with tomatoes.
While consumption was still pooh-poohed in the Northeast and even the South, cooks all over the Crescent City were throwing the succulent red fruit into soups, gumbos and sauces, making it an important part of Creole cuisine, and thereby proving to the rest of America that the love apple was safe.
But because of the tomato’s age-old reputation, even avant-garde diners in early 19th-century New Orleans still would not eat it raw.
Around 1830, the same time the tomato first appeared in Paris markets, the fruit was bred to its modern smooth shape. It was not until around this time, or even later, that most Americans got over their fear of poison. The tomato did not become popular at the typical dinner table until World War I, when farm clubs promoted it for healthier eating, and the Bureau of Home Economics recommended that everyone eat a whopping 55 pounds each year.
According to the USDA, today we eat an average of 22 pounds of tomatoes annually, far short of World War I recommendations, but still enough to give regular consumers a good dose of the antioxident lycopene and vitamins A, C and K.
We’re second only to China in tomato production. Even though we love our tomato salads and salsa, we eat half in the form of ketchup and tomato sauce.
And, following potatoes, lettuce and onions, the tomato is our fourth most popular vegetable — this statistic not bad for a food that not so long ago was vilified.
Sources: New York Times, July 29, 2009; www.aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu; Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History (Capatti and Montanari, 1999); A Mediterannean Feast (Wright, 1999); Food (Waverley Root, 1980); www.usda.gov., New Orleans Cuisine (Tucker, 2008).
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’ forthcoming title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at email@example.com.