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History Of Tomatoes - Is There Really A Mystery Behind Its Origins?
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History Of Tomatoes - Is There Really A Mystery Behind Its Origins?

History of tomatoes - Where did they come from? What do we really know about their humble beginnings? Were they really deemed to be poisonous or were they revered like an anaphrodisiac? From their questionable beginnings tomatoes truly have a fascinating history. The tomato has traveled from one side of the globe to the other side and has become a staple in cultures all over the world. In North America, it is one of the most favored garden vegetables today. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? Over the years there has been much debate whether the tomato is truly a fruit or vegetable and that in itself is part of it's captivating history.

First Known History of Tomatoes

The history of tomatoes can be traced as far back as 500 AD to the early American Indian people known as the Aztecs. It may not have resembled anything like our modern day tomato. It is thought that the first tomatoes originated from Peru, South America. There still can be found wild tomatoes growing in the Andes mountains. Several thousand years before the Spanish conquistadors explored Central America in the early 16th century, the wild ancestor of our modern day tomato somehow made it's way to the Yucatan region which is now known as Mexico. Here, the Spanish Explorers discovered the widespread cultivation of tomatoes. It is presumed that the tomato then found it's way across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The Spanish conquistadors must have thought that the tomato was important enough to take back and distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. It was then taken to the Philippines and spread over the entire Asian continent. Many people think that the tomato made it's way to America and Canada by way of Mexico, but it actually was introduced by European Immigrants.

Introduction to Europe

The tomato, when introduced to Europe by the Spanish explorers, was called pomodoro, meaning golden apple. This might lead us to believe that the tomato when brought to Europe was yellow in color. There is an early record of tomatoes being used in the 1500s in Italy which explains the addition of tomatoes into the Italian cuisine. At the same time, in northern Europe tomatoes were grown in greenhouses as ornamental plants, not to be eaten because they were poisonous. During these Colonial times, superstitions abounded, and people thought that if they ate a tomato, their blood would turn to acid. Was it that they thought the tomato's similarity was that of the deadly look-alike, Nightshade?

Poison or Edible Delight?

The tomato was regarded as being poisonous, because it belonged to the Nightshade family. The fruit is an edible delight but to the contrary the leaves and stem are toxic. The name of this tomato fruit which is Lycopersicon lycopersicum indicates some of the history of tomatoes and points to the mystery surrounding the tomato. Lycopersicon means, "wolf peach" in Latin and applies to the idea that, similar to a wolf, this tomato fruit is dangerous. Did these early Europeans not realize that the reason behind the tomato poisoning deaths were of their own making? It seems that during the 1500's the wealthy Europeans used plates and flatware made out of pewter and the highly acidic tomatoes caused lead from the pewter to seep into the food on the pewter plates, resulting in toxic lead contamination and death. The poor who ate tomatoes off of wooden utensils were spared this fate.

Tomato Makes It's Way Back to North American

The early Spanish name for the tomato may also be a reason that the Puritans, in the early days, shunned them. The names of tomatoes came from the Italian language, pomi d'oro, meaning golden apple and the French language, pomme d'amour, meaning love apple because they were convinced it had aphrodisiac properties. These names made the highly proper Puritans think of the tomato as being somewhat evil. During the 1800s with the influx of Europeans to North America, tomatoes received an upsurge. Italian-Americans brought tomatoes and made them into sauces which were spread on the sensational new invention - pizza. This cultural change also brought a change in our way of thinking about the tomato and it rapidly became a staple in the American kitchen during the years before the Civil War.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have encouraged the use of tomatoes in North America by growing them in his Monticello Gardens. He and his family used them frequently in various recipes, including gumbo. Tomato soup was introduced in 1897 by Joseph Campbell of Campbell's Soups establishing the certainty that the tomato would ascend to culinary importance by launching his condensed tomato soup. Now, Americans benefit from ingesting over 12 million tons of tomatoes per year. It seems that tomatoes are now an indispensable fixture of our present day cuisine.

Another advancement of tomatoes in the North American cultivation in 1820 was when Colonel Robert Johnson devoured a full basket of tomatoes in a public square to stop the hearsay of ill effects of tomatoes. At this time, people were still growing their own produce in their own vegetable gardens. After Colonel Robert Johnson's public display, people avidly began cultivating tomatoes in their own garden plots. The heirloom varieties of tomatoes, so cherished today, received their beginnings in those 19th century garden plots, where they were cultivated, distinguished, and preserved.

The history of tomatoes continues to prove itself fascinating. There are many questions still not answered, and maybe we will never know all the mysteries behind the cherished tomato, love apple, golden apple, but we should all try to continue on with our own history of tomatoes and keep going with our tomato gardening. Preserving our heirloom tomatoes for generations to come.


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