A Brief History Of The Tomato
Learn the history of the tomato. Originally thought of as poisonous, tomatoes are now recommened to prevent prostrate cancer. How did we get so far?
No European had seen the tomato until Cortez landed in Mexico in 1519. When the explorers brought some back to Spain, they were rather easily adapted by the Spanish population, but without it spreading to much of the rest of the continent. The earliest mention of it by a European was by Venetian Petrus Matthiolus, who in 1544 recommended frying it and seasoning with salt and pepper. Nonetheless, it took a while for this now popular vegetable (or fruit, if you must) to catch on.
Perhaps some of the reason for hesitancy in eating it was it's relation to the poisonous nightshade family (as is a potato). Some tried to find medical reasons for eating it--perhaps it was good for curing rheumatism, or fevers. Or, given it's Latin name of pomum amoris (love apple), perhaps it was an aphrodisiac. As late as 1820, however, eating tomatoes was something of a rarity, to the point of being something of a stunt--Robert Johnson ate one raw on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey, much to the wonderment of the crowd.
Shortly, thereafter, there seems to have been a change. Perhaps enough people ate them without dropping dead that they began to be seriously considered as a food. Dickens, in the Pickwick Papers, mentions dishes with tomato sauce in the 1840s, and by that time, tomato sauces were well-known in the upper and middle classes of Britain.
For the next hundred years, tomato varieties were cultivated and flourished under loving attention. Interestingly, many of them bore little resemblence to the red round tomatoes you usually find in supermarkets today. One cultivated by the Cherokee Indians was a dusty rose in color and bumpy in shape, and was known as the Cherokee Purple. The Mortgage Lifter was developed in the 1930s to help the inventor pay off his mortgage--two to four pounds in size, it was a real family sized vegetable!
After World War II, however, the desire of year round tomatoes led to the increase in long-distance shipping of same. And with the need to ship came the need for more uniform tomatoes. Ones that ripened at the same time, were a regular size and shape, and had a skin that take the punishments of long-distance travel. And the brighter the red color, the better.
Fortunately, however, consumers eventually rebelled. Although it is entirely too easy still to find watery tomatoes with brilliant color, more and more farms are turning to producing heirloom tomatoes, such as the ones mentioned above. And more markets are providing them to consumers.
The tomato may well be America's favorite vegetable--found in sauces, stews, and ketchup, it provides many of us with the majority of our vitamin C and anti-oxidant requirements. As well, recent research has suggested that men that wish to fend off the liklihood of prostrate cancer would do well to eat tomatoes, or tomato-based products, three times a week. Perhaps the Europeans of the 17th century were right to look at medicinal uses for this vegetable!