When were tomatoes introduced to England?
A huge proportion of Europeans dreaded the tomato in the late 1700s.
A nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. At the time, no one realized the link between plate and poison; the tomato was blamed.
With the birth of the pizza in Naples about 1880, the tomato gained great appeal throughout Europe. But there’s a little more to the story behind the misunderstood fruit’s stint of unpopularity in England and America, as Andrew F. Smith details in his The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery. The tomato was not solely to blame for what was really lead poisoning. Before the fruit made its way to the table in North America, it was classified as a deadly nightshade, a poisonous family of Solanaceae plants that contain toxins called tropane alkaloids.
One of the earliest-known European references to the food was made by the Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who first classified the “golden apple” as a nightshade and a mandrake—a category of food known as an aphrodisiac. The mandrake has a long history; it is mentioned twice in the Bible as the Hebrew term dudaim, which roughly translates to “love apple.” (The mandrake is employed as a love potion in Genesis). Matthioli’s designation of the tomato as a mandrake has long-term consequences. The tomato, like other fruits and vegetables in the solanaceae family, such as eggplant, has a murky reputation for being both deadly and a source of temptation. (Editor’s note: This sentence has been amended to emphasize that the mandrake, not the tomato, is thought to have been mentioned in the Bible.)
But what really did the tomato in, according to Smith’s research, was John Gerard’s publication of Herball in 1597 which drew heavily from the agricultural works of Dodoens and l’Ecluse (1553). According to Smith, most of the information (which was inaccurate to begin with) was plagiarized by Gerard, a barber-surgeon who misspelled words like Lycoperticum in the collection’s rushed final product. Gerard is quoted by Smith:
Gerard said ‘the entire plant’ was ‘of ranke and putrid flavour.’ The fruit was tainted, and he left it to everyone’s scorn. Although the tomato plant’s leaves and stem are poisonous, the fruit is not.
While founded on a misconception, Gerard’s view of the tomato persisted in Britain and the British North American colonies for nearly 200 years.
Tomatoes were also thought to be best consumed in hotter places, such as Mesoamerica, where the fruit originated. The tomato was eaten by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD and called the “tomatl,” (its name in Nahuatl), and wasn’t grown in Britain until the 1590s. The seeds were assumed to have been brought to southern Europe by Spanish conquistadors returning from excursions in Mexico and other regions of Mesoamerica in the early 16th century. Some academics believe Cortez sent the seeds to Europe for decorative reasons around 1519. Tomatoes were planted in gardens for decorative reasons rather than for eating until the late 1800s in colder areas. Smith goes on to say:
Although people in warmer places ate love apples to “coole and assuage the heate and thirst of the heated stomaches,” British gardeners planted them simply for curiosity and the beauty of the fruit, according to John Parkinson, apothecary to King James I and botanist to King Charles I.
The first known reference to tomato in the British North American Colonies was published in herbalist William Salmon’s Botanologia printed in 1710 which places the tomato in the Carolinas. The tomato became an acceptable edible fruit in many regions, but the United States of America weren’t as united in the 18th and early 19th century. The tomato steadily expanded, along with many misconceptions and queries from farmers. Several people knew how to raise them but not how to prepare them.
Hundreds of tomato recipes had appeared in local magazines and newspapers by 1822, but anxieties and tales about the plant’s potential danger remained. A fresh issue arose in the 1830s, when the love apple was grown in New York. The Green Tomato Worm, which is three to four inches in length and has a horn protruding from its spine, started wreaking havoc on tomato patches throughout the state. According to The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs and Cultivator Almanac (1867) edited by J.J. Thomas, it was believed that a mere brush with such a worm could result in death. The following is a terrifying description:
All of our gardens are plagued with a gigantic, thick-bodied green worm with oblique white sterols down its sides and a curved, thorn-like horn at the end of its back.
According to Smith’s study, even Ralph Waldo Emerson was terrified of the tomato-loving worms: “it is now considered as toxic and imparting a poisonous character to the fruit if it should happen to crawl onto it.”
Around the same time period, a man by the name of Dr. Fuller in New York was quoted in The Syracuse Standard, saying he had found a five-inch tomato worm in his garden. He put the worm in a container and said it was “poisonous as a rattlesnake” because it spat spittle at its target. According to Fuller’s account, once the skin came into contact with the spittle, it swelled immediately. The sufferer would seize and die a few hours later. It was a “new foe to human life,” he said. Fortunately, an entomologist named Benjamin Walsh believed that the deadly tomato worm would not harm a flea. Thomas goes on to say:
These worries have all but evaporated now that we’ve been acquainted with it, and we’ve become pretty indifferent to this critter, understanding it’s just an ugly-looking worm that eats some tomato leaves…
Fear seemed to have subsided. Farmers started exploring the tomato’s usage and experimenting with new types as agricultural cultures advanced. According to Smith, back in the 1850s the name tomato was so highly regarded that it was used to sell other plants at market. By 1897, pioneer Joseph Campbell discovered that canned tomatoes retain well and popularized condensed tomato soup.
Today, tomatoes are consumed around the world in countless varieties: heirlooms, romas, cherry tomatoes—to name a few. Every year, more than 1.5 billion tons of tomatoes are commercially produced. The United States alone generated 3.32 billion pounds of fresh-market tomatoes in 2009. Nonetheless, part of the plant’s dark background seems to have accompanied the tomato into popular culture. In the 1978 musical drama/ comedy “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” giant red blobs of the fruit terrorize the country. “The country is in disarray. “Is there no stopping this tomato onslaught?”