T for Tomato

The tomato, Lycopersicum esculentum, like the potato comes from South America. The ancient ancestors of our fat, red tomato grew wild on the riverbanks of Peru and Ecuador and grows there still. When it spread into Central America and Mexico resourceful American Indians brought it into cultivation.

Spanish conquistadores came across what the Indians called tomatl and shipped the fruit back to Seville from where it travelled to Italy. In 1544 one Italian writer recommended cooking the tomato ‘like an eggplant – fried in oil with salt and pepper.’ He called the fruit ‘mala aurea’ or golden apple.

Linnaeus classified it as L. esculentum, but its supposed links with mandrake (Mandragon autumnalis), the notorious narcotic which reportedly shrieked when pulled from the ground, branded the tomato a dangerous fruit, good only for table decoration. ‘In Spaine and those hot regions they used to eat prepared and boil’d with pepper, salt and oil; but they yield very little nourishment to the body and the same naught and corrupt,’ explained the Elizabethan botanist John Gerard. John Parkinson described it in terms with which those prejudiced against the tomato would agree: it was, he wrote, ‘full of slimie juice and waterie pulp.’

Yet the French, among others, dubbed it pomme d’amour or love apple, a reference to its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. Its powers to promote promiscuity earned it yet another name – mad or rage apple. Although the American president Thomas Jefferson was content to grow them in his Monticello garden in the 1780s, the tomato needed a better public profile. Which may be why, in 1820, we find one Robert Gibbon Johnson publicly eating a basket of supposedly poisonous tomatoes on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey.

The argument over whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable (99% of garden clubs I’ve spoken to voted it as a fruit) was tested in an American court of law. John Nix, seeking to avoid a 10% tax on vegetables imported to the US, claimed the tomato was a fruit. However the Supreme Court in 1893 ruled that, while the tomato, like the cucumber and squash, was a ‘fruit of a vine,’ these were all ‘in the common language of the people … vegetables which are grown in the kitchen garden.’

From: Fifty Tales from the Kitchen Garden, Amazon, 2017)