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Tomato History

June 13, 2008

By Kelly Young, Jacksonville Daily Progress, Texas

Jun. 13–As we take time out of our busy lives to pay homage to the tomato and the impact it has had on the Jacksonville area, it is useful to have an understanding of the history of the tomato.

It is a common misconception that tomatoes originated along the coastal lands of Mediterranean Sea, and while those areas are prime tomato-growing locations, the tomato was actually originally from much closer to home. History indicates that tomatoes were first found in South America, in the areas that make up modern-day Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.

As early as 700 A.D., tomatoes were being cultivated by the Aztecs and the Incas. The word tomato actually comes from the word tomati, which was the Aztec word for the tomato plant. Some historical accounts also tell of a dish that the Aztecs made consisting of tomatoes, chile peppers and ground squash seeds, a mixture not unlike the salsas of today.

Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to encounter the tomato, and brought many of the fruit back with them when they returned home. Soon tomatoes were growing in affluent homes across Spain, Portugal and France. But the people of Europe found little use for the tomato and it was grown more as a garden curiosity than as a foodstuff. The French came to call the tomato, pomme d’amour, which means “apple of love.”

By the time of the American Revolution, a number of curious rumors and superstitions had taken their toll on the tomato’s reputation.

Tomato plants are a member of the Solanaceae or Nightshade family, making the tomato closely related to powerful poisons and hallucinogens. This family relation hurt the tomato by association. Rumors were told that witches used Nightshade in some of their spells and used tomatoes specifically in the summoning of werewolves. The wolf connection stuck and today the scientific name for the tomato plant is lycopersicon esculentum, which means “edible wolf peach.”

The rumors in Europe led to full-blown fears in the New World, where tomatoes were thought to be toxic. Legend has it that the tomato’s reputation was saved by a Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson, who stood on the New Jersey courthouse steps in 1820 and to the astonishment of the assembled town ate a bushel of tomatoes with no adverse effects. Even his physician had predicted doom for Johnson.

“The foolish colonial will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. Should he by some unlikely chance survive, his skin will stick to his stomach and cause cancer,” he said. Johnson survived the daring feat. The authenticity of this event is questionable, but it is a matter of fact that by 1850 tomatoes had achieved full acceptance into American homes and recipes.

Another interesting anecdote in the history of the tomato is the long-standing debate as to whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables, and how that debate was finally settled. Botanically, tomatoes are fruit. The word fruit refers to the edible part of the plant that contains the seeds, while vegetables are the edible roots, stems and leaves of the plant. But legally, tomatoes are vegetables. According to FindLaw.com, the supreme court ruled, in the 1893 case of Nix v. Hedden, that since tomatoes were eaten with main dishes and not as desserts that they were vegetables. The case was to determine whether imported tomatoes should be taxed or not — fruits were imported tax-free, while vegetables were not. The legal clarification has done little to stop those people intent on calling tomatoes fruit from doing so. Because they are.

Today the tomato is one of the most popular fruits/vegetables in the world and is used in a large portion of modern, American recipes. So, as you enjoy the activities during this year’s Tomato Fest, please rest easy, there will be no werewolves.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Jacksonville Daily Progress, Texas

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