A Brief History of the Tomato

Few of us can conceive of cooking (or eating) without the presence of tomatoes in our diet. In the US, the tomato is the summer vegetable (or fruit?) most often grown at home–and there are plenty of cultivars to grow. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims there are 25,000 tomato varieties.

But this delicious food didn’t always have it so easy. Up until the 1800’s, most people viewed the tomato with caution–and many with outright fear. Originally grown by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 A.D., it is thought that the first seeds made their way across the Atlantic sometime in the 1500’s.

Early Europeans categorized it with a group of well-known poisonous plants of the era: henbane, mandrake and nightshade. Because of its association with nightshade (whose hallucinogenic effects include visions and the sense of flying), it quickly became associated with witchcraft. In German folklore, witches would use plants such as mandrake and nightshade to summon werewolves (in fact, the common German name for “tomato” translates to “wolf peach”); because of this, the tomato was widely avoided (by everyone other than practitioners of the “dark arts,” that is).

Legend has it that one of the main turning points in the popularity of the tomato in the US is largely due to one Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson. On September 26, 1830, standing on the courthouse steps in Salem, Massachusetts before a crowd of interested onlookers, he proclaimed his intention to eat a whole basket of the red fruit and survive. One member of the audience was his doctor, who loudly stated, “The foolish colonel will froth and foam at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid – one dose and he is dead! He might even be exposing himself to brain fever! Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, his skin will stick to his stomach and cause cancer!” Colonel Johnson proceeded to eat the basket of tomatoes and survive with no ill effects.

Even with all its detractors, the tomato had a few fans. Some people once believed that placing a ripe tomato on a mantel of a new dwelling would ward off evil spirits and guarantee future prosperity. Since ripe tomatoes tended to go bad quickly, it became popular to make stuffed fabric tomatoes to put on the mantel. Invariably, people sewing began to use them as handy pin holders. To this day, pincushions are very commonly covered with red fabric–and many still look like tomatoes.

Today, are much more likely to put a ripe tomato on our plates than on our mantels. We can enjoy all the different shapes, colors and flavors of tomatoes available. Here’s wishing you a bumper crop this summer!

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