First Posted: 8/5/2013
The tomato has a curious history.
Like its relative, the potato, the tomato originated in South America, was taken to Europe by the Spaniards in the early 1500s, and from there was brought to the American colonies. Although Thomas Jefferson’s diary mentions “dwarf tomatas” and “Spanish tomatas come to table,”most people in this country and northern Europe were afraid to eat them until about a century ago because of their kinship and similarity to the poisonous nightshades.
As the tomato arrived in Europe, the plant became associated with poisonous members of the Solanceae family, specifically henbane, mandrake and the aforementioned deadly nightshade, to which it bore more than a passing resemblance.
Deadly nightshade is a poisonous plant which has been used as both a hallucinogenic drug and a beauty aid in different parts of Europe. In the medieval courts of Europe, ladies would apply a few drops of nightshade extract to their eyes to dilate their pupils, a look considered most fashionable at the time.
The hallucinogenic properties of the plant were said to produce “visions” and the sense of flying. This led to the association of the nightshade family with witchcraft.
German folklore claims that witches used plants like mandrake and nightshade to summon werewolves, a practice known as lycanthropy. The common German name for tomatoes translates to “wolf peach” and, because of this, it was universally avoided.
In the 18th century, the tomato species was named Lycopersicon esculentum, which literally means, “edible wolf peach.”
Because of its association with Witches and the Black Arts, early efforts to peddle the tomato were not highly successful.
Instead they were raised in old-fashioned gardens as ornamental plants and their brightly-colored fruit, red or yellow but wrinkled and much smaller than our modern tomatoes, were used to decorate mantelpieces and were called “love apples.”
Tens of centuries ago, the pre-Incans in Peru began to cultivate a nightshade-like vine plant with little red sourish berries. It still grows in the highlands of that country. There is also a shrubby tree tomato with yellow fruit found on the slopes of the Andes Mountains, as high as 13,000 feet above sea level that can withstand severe frosts. The pottery of these ancient people includes accurate models of several types of tomatoes as well as corn, potatoes, peppers, beans and squashes which they had developed from wild plants and grew as crops.
Over the centuries, the tomato was carried from Peru to the Maya Indians of Central America and thence to the Toltecs of Mexico and their Aztec conquerors who called it ‘“tomat.” The Spaniards called it “tomate.”
The name “tomato” derives from “tomat,” its name in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people. The English form “tomate” first appeared in the 17th century and was later modified to “tomato,” probably under the influence of the more familiar “potato.”
Most of these early fruits were yellow, and became known as “manzanas” (apples) and “pomi d’oro (apple of gold). They were considered poisonous but appreciated for their beauty.
Today, tomatoes are one of our staple foods and Americans eat an average of about two bushels per person per year. One bushel is processed commercially into canned tomatoes, soups, tomato juice, green pickles, relishes and ketchup. Oil from the seeds is used in soap and paint. The other bushel is bought fresh or raised in gardens.
The heaviest tomato ever, weighing 7 pound, 12 ounces, was of the cultivar ‘Delicious,’ grown by Gordon Graham of Edmond, Oklahoma in 1986. The largest tomato plant grown was of the cultivar ‘Sungold’ and reached 65 feet in length, grown by Nutriculture Ltd of Mawdesley, Lancashire, UK, in 2000.
While the tomato has a high water content, it is an excellent food. In addition to some carbohydrate and protein, it is rich in vitamin A, nicotinic acid and still more so in vitamin C. Six ounces of tomato juice are said to provide the average adult with his minimum daily requirement of the latter and about one-third his need of vitamin A.
Today, tomatoes are grown outdoors throughout the world except in frigid and semi-frigid zones. Even in climates with short growing seasons, large crops are possible if the plants are started “under glass.” It will grow on almost any soil but is killed by the first touch of frost.
Something of a vegetable hobo, it often thrives on ash piles, garbage dumps and, because its small seeds are not digested, on beds of sewage sludge.
About half of the commercial yield in this country is grown in California, Indiana and New Jersey. The rich black nat land in southeastern Cook County is the principal tomato area in Illinois.
In winter, some tomatoes are grown in hothouses but most are shipped from Texas and Florida or imported from Mexico and Cuba.