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The Tomato: History of a Misunderstood Fruit

The Tomato: History of a Misunderstood Fruit

The earliest records of people eating tomatoes came from the Aztec empire as early as 700 AD. The fruit, called “tomatl,” faded in and out of the history books until about 1590, when it was grown in Britain. The tomato made the journey to Europe with the Spanish conquistadors who brought seeds home to Spain after exploring Mexico and parts of Mesoamerica. From that time, the plant took off as an ornamental vine, but most people avoided consuming it as it was thought to be a deadly nightshade (as part of the Solanacea family, the tomato shares “roots” with deadly plants like belladonna, but also has delicious cousins like the potato and the eggplant). This rumor gained prevalence as tomato-eaters were seen succumbing to madness. However, this was a misunderstanding more likely attributed to the dishware at the time. Many of the people eating prepared tomatoes ate them off pewter plates, which had a significant lead content. When exposed to the acid in tomato juice, the lead would leach from the plate into the food causing lead poisoning in the unlucky diner. Needless to say, this correlation did not help the tomato’s reputation.

As gardeners took to the tomato because of it’s aesthetically pleasing color, the tomato only grew in both notoriety and mystery. Rumors spread about ways to cook and eat the fruit, but many of these methods went untested until 1822. At that time, tomato recipes began to appear in local newspapers. It seemed that the tomato was finally becoming a trusted food.

Sadly, just as interest was growing, so too was the Green Tomato Worm infestation. These caterpillars measure three to four inches and were believed to cause death to any person unlucky enough to come in contact with it. People believed these hornworms could spit at prey and were poisonous as a rattlesnake. It was a terrifying belief that caused most to steer clear of the tomato.

After more than 250 years of bad publicity, the tomato finally had a change of luck. Entomologist Benjamin Walsh debunked all suspicions of toxicity in the green tomato worm (he claimed that people should be indifferent to it as it was “merely an ugly-looking worm which eats some of the leaves of the tomato”). Then, in the late 1880s, the pizza was introduced to the world, quelling all fears and suspicions about the tomato and solidifying it as a staple food in the global diet.


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