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I Say Tomayto, You Say Tomahto… by Sam Cox – History of the Tomato

Posted on: September 1st, 2016 by hauleymusic No Comments

Where did the tomato come from? By that logic, one would look closely at the western coast of South America, in present day Peru where eight species in the tomato genus still grow wild in the Andes Mountains

(1). The current range of wild tomato relatives extends from the northern tip of Chile on the south, to Ecuador on the north, and reaching inland from the Pacific 100-200 miles, also including the Galapogos Islands.

From Peru, an unidentified wild ancestor of the tomato made its way north at some time several thousand years prior to the Spanish exploration of Central America in the early 16th century

[2].That the tomato originated in South America, and that the tomato was an important crop among New World Indians by the 15th century is supported by strong evidence. The riddle that has kept some botanists on edge for many years is the question of where and when the wild tomato became a domesticated tomato.
Aztec writings in Central America mention dishes comprised of peppers, salt and tomatoes, a concoction which seems likely to be the original salsa recipe

[3].The Spanish explorer Cortez conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, later to be renamed Mexico City, in 1521. It is presumed that the tomato found its’ way across the Atlantic shortly after. The earliest mention of the tomato in European literature is found in an herbal written by Matthiolus in 1544 [3]. He described tomatoes, or as they were called in Italy, pomi d’oro (golden apple), and wrote that they were “eaten in Italy with oil, salt and pepper”.

By 1623, four types of tomatoes were known: red, yellow, orange and golden [1].The first cookbook to mention tomatoes was published in Naples in 1692 [1]. By 1700, seven types are mentioned in one article, including a large red type [3]. In 1752, English cooks used tomatoes sparingly in the flavoring of soups [3]. In 1758, a tomato recipe allegedly showed up in the popular British cookbook, The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glass [3].The introduction of the tomato did not proceed peacefully in all areas of Europe. Northern cultures associated the tomato plant with poisonous members of the Solanceae family, specifically henbane, mandrake and deadly nightshade, which bore morphological resemblance. Deadly nightshade, Atropus belladonna, in particular bears good resemblance to a tomato plant. It is a poisonous plant which has been used as both a hallucinogenic drug and a beauty aid in different parts of Europe. The Latin name “belladonna” literally means beautiful woman, in reference to the practice of ladies in medieval courts who would apply a few drops of nightshade extract to their eyes to dilate their pupils, a look considered most fashionable at the time. The hallucinogenic properties of the plant, comprised of visions and the sense of flying, most likely led to the association of nightshade with witchcraft. Old German folklore has it that witches used plants of the nightshade family to evoke werewolves, a practice known as lycanthropy. The common German name for tomatoes translates to “wolf peach”, and was avoided for obvious reasons. In the 18th century Carl Linnaeus conjured up binomial nomenclature to name species, and took note of this legend when he named the tomato Lycopersicon esculentum, which literally means, “edible wolf peach” [3].
Plants were brought to North America with colonists early on as ornamentals from Britain, the fruits of which were reportedly most valued for pustule removing properties [4]. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson brought tomatoes to his table.

[1] Gould WA. 1983. Tomato Production, Processing and Quality Evaluation, 2ed. AVI Publishing Company, Inc. Westport, CT. pp 3-50.

[2] Rick CM. Tomato. 1995, 2nd ed.,In: J Smartt and NW Simmonds (eds), Evolution of Crop Plants. Longman Scientific and Technical, Essex, England. pp 452-457

[3] Cutler KD. 1998. From Wolf Peach to Outer Space.

[4] Simpson BB, Ogorzaly MC. 1986. Economic Botany: Plants In Our World. McGraw-Hill, New York .