The History of Tomatoes

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most popular foods in the world is tomatoes. 

Tomatoes are grown almost everywhere in the world today, and they have become the basis of several international cuisines. 

However, just a few hundred years ago, very few people were eating tomatoes as we know them today.

In fact, even after they were cultivated, there were people terrified to actually eat them.

Learn more about tomatoes and tomatoes and their history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Let me start this episode by noting a few things. 

I am going to use the American pronunciation of to-may-to, not the British pronunciation of to-mah-to. That’s because…..I’m an American, and this is my show. 

The other thing is that a tomato is indeed a fruit. The distinction between a fruit and a vegetable is pretty clear, and a tomato is indeed a fruit as it is the seed-bearing part of the plant. It isn’t necessarily sweet like an apple or an orange, but it is a seed-bearing fruit. 

However, from a culinary standpoint, it is served as a vegetable like other fruits such as cucumbers, peppers, eggplant/aubergine, avocados, pumpkins, squash, and zucchini. 

So, with that, where do tomatoes come from? 

The exact origin of the tomato isn’t clear, but they are believed to have come from the coastal region of western South America, which today includes Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Northern Chile. 

All tomatoes today are thought to originate from a single species known as Solanum lycopersicum.

The first tomatoes were thought to be nothing like the tomatoes we know today. They were most probably extremely small, probably the size of berries. 

What made the tomato useful was its domestication. Again, we don’t know exactly where or where it was domesticated, but the earliest evidence points to it being grown in southern Mexico around the year 500 BC. Given the time, it was probably first cultivated by the Maya people. 

The cultivation of the tomato in Mexico resulted in the creation of many varietals which differed in color, texture, and shape. 

We honestly know very little about how tomatoes were used and grown from this period because there were no records kept about them. 

The first real documentation of tomatoes occurred with the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas. 

The Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún was one of the first Europeans to document the Aztec use of tomatoes. Sometime in the 1540s, he was walking around the Nahua market in the city of Tenochtitlán, which is today Mexico City. He recorded what he saw in his ethnographic record of the Aztecs, known as the Florentine Codex. 

He noted there were “large tomatoes, small tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, large serpent tomatoes, [and] nipple-shaped tomatoes…”

He saw red, yellow, and green tomatoes. He also saw a wide variety of tomato-based sauces for sale, with chilies, mushrooms, and avocados. 

My personal guess is that if you were to go back in time 500 years and visit the Nahua market, most of the foods you would see would probably be recognizable or at least familiar. 

The Spaniard who saw the potential in tomatoes as a food crop was the conquistador Hernán Cortés. 

He reportedly sent the first tomato back to Spain sometime in the 1520s. The first recorded mention of a tomato in Europe took place in 1544 by the Italian botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli. 

He described it as a new type of eggplant that was red or gold in color and could be served like an eggplant. 

The Spanish began spreading tomato cultivation to their colonies throughout the world, not just in the Americas but to Asia as well, in particular the Philippines. 

The word tomato is derived from the Spanish word tomate, which itself comes from the Aztec word tomatl.

From the Philippines, the tomato was introduced to China and other Asian countries. In China, it was known as ‘foreign eggplant’. However, it would be several centuries before the plant really caught on in China.

The association of tomatoes with eggplants (or aubergines if you live in the Commonwealth) wasn’t totally off the mark. Both tomatoes and eggplants are part of a family of plants called Solanaceae or nightshades. 

There are a lot of common plants in the nightshade family, one of which is known as belladonna, or deadly nightshade. 

This association with deadly nightshade actually led people in Europe to avoid the consumption of tomatoes for several hundred years. It was known as the poison apple and was thought to be responsible for the deaths of several aristocrats. 

It turns out tomatoes might have been indirectly responsible for poisoning, but not because tomatoes were poisonous.

Many of the plates used by upper-class people were made out of pewter, and pewter often contained lead. The acidic nature of tomatoes leached lead out of the pewter and, after repeated consumption, may have resulted in lead poisoning.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, most of the tomatoes grown in Europe weren’t for consumption but as ornamental plants for flower gardens. 

It took a while for tomatoes to become accepted as a food source in Europe. They were consumed in the Caribbean and Spain, but most of Europe still believed they were unfit for consumption. 

One of the first cookbooks that mentioned tomato recipes was published in 1692 in Naples, Italy. 

Tomatoes arrived in North America via the British, completing a very long route going from South America to Europe back to North America. They were first recorded as being grown in South Carolina in the early 18th century. 

Tomatoes were considered an acceptable edible food in the South, but it was still largely feared in the North. 

Adoption of the tomato took time, but it picked up steam throughout the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson at tomatoes when he was stationed in France and brought some back with him to grow in his home in Monticello, Virginia. 

In Italy, tomatoes began to find a place in Italian cuisine. Tomatoes were grown for use in sauces and as dried tomatoes. 

Tomato varietals spread because it was so easy to breed new varieties of tomatoes. In Italy, different types of tomatoes were often known by the towns they were developed in, similar to wines. 

It was really tomato sauce, which created what we know as pizza in Naples and separated it from other flatbread dishes. 

The last vestiges of tomatoes, being thought of as a poisonous fruit, disappeared in the 19th century. As more and more people began eating tomatoes and tomato-based foods, more people realized that the old rumors were false and it was considered to be safe. 

However, even when the reputation of tomatoes improved, in the 1830s, tomato worms appeared in New York that had a horn on their head. People began to think that the worm was now transferring some sort of poison into the tomato, making it unfit to eat. 

Nonetheless, despite such setbacks, tomato-based recipes rapidly spread throughout the early 19th century, and tomato consumption increased. Tomato use spread to North Africa and the Middle East, where it quickly became a staple of the cuisine. 

Tomatoes underwent a complete rebranding, going from being considered dangerous to healthy. Tomato pills were sold as health supplements. 

Tomatoes became a staple food, and one of the reasons why it was so popular was because they were so easy to grow in a wide variety of climates. 

However, tomatoes are very finicky. They were difficult to grow on a large scale. A botanist by the name of Alexander Livingston developed the paragon tomato in 1870 and the acme in 1875. 

In 1876, Henry J. Heinz released a commercial brand of ketchup that was sold in stores. Until this point, ketchup had been something that was made at home, with everyone having a different recipe.

In 1893, the US Supreme Court declared tomatoes to be a vegetable for the purposes of taxing imports, which was the source of the debate about tomatoes being a fruit or a vegetable. 

In 1897, Joseph Campbell realized that tomatoes would keep well when canned and developed condensed tomato soup. 

The early 20th century saw the rise of large-scale tomato production in Central California, which proved to be a great location for tomato production. The dry conditions in the Central Valley discouraged the growth of fungi, which could ruin crops.

In the 1940s, great strides in tomato research were made by Charles Rick, a University of California geneticist. He took multiple bioprospecting trips to South America to find the original wild varietals that tomatoes came from.

He found varieties of tomatoes that were resistant to worms and some that easily fell off the vine.

Despite the increased popularity of tomatoes, they were still a difficult crop to produce because they were very difficult to harvest. They had to be harvested by hand because the skins were so thin that they could easily be damaged. 

In the late 1950s, ??Jack Hanna, a botanist at the University of California at Davis, developed a new varietal of tomato that had a thicker skin. This innovation allowed for tomatoes to be grown that could be harvested by machine, something which hadn’t been possible before. 

Despite the advances made in tomato cultivation, there have been problems with the development of modern tomatoes. They were bred to encourage certain traits to make them easier to grow and harvest. The one thing they weren’t necessarily selectively bred for was taste.

This has led to a resurgence in the growth of heritage varietals, which usually taste much better than the ones grown for commercial use. 

One of the unique properties of tomatoes is that they are uniquely suited to be grown in greenhouses. There is now a small industry in hydroponically grown tomatoes that can be grown year-round, even in cold climates. 

Today, tomatoes are the second most popular culinary vegetable in the world, behind only potatoes. 

The global tomato harvest is worth about $197 billion dollars annually, representing almost 190 million metric tons. The world’s largest producers are China, India, Turkey, and the United States. 

Tomatoes aren’t just a staple of Italian cuisine but can be found in foods all over the world in cuisines as diverse as Mexico, Morocco, and even China. One of the most popular condiments in the world is ketchup, and one of the most valuable in sales is salsa, which is also tomato-based. 

One of the world’s biggest tomato festivals can be found every year outside of Valencia, Spain…La Tomatina. 

La Tomatina is the world’s largest tomato fight, with thousands of people throwing truckloads of tomatoes at each other every year at the end of August.

Tomatoes have had a very strange history. They went from being completely unknown outside of a small section of the Americas to being feared as being a poisonous plant to becoming one of the most popular foods in the world.