Although few of us today can imagine a world without tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), those fruits didn’t become a staple of the American diet until the end of the 19th century. During the Civil War, there had been a large demand for canned vittles to feed the soldiers, and tomatoes fit right in--into those tins, that is. By the conclusion of the 1800s, the fruit had become popular enough that a certain Campbell sold it as soup.
However, the tomato hadn’t gained its acceptance easily. It probably originated in the mountains of western South America, only to be ignored by the natives there. At some point, the plant was carried north to central America and Mexico where the Aztecs recognized its potential. Since they already grew the somewhat similar fruit now called the tomatilla, then named tomatl, they probably assumed that the new one—which they dubbed xitomatl—must be edible too.
The conquistadors eventually would take it to Spain, from whence it spread to other parts of Europe. In 1544, Italian herbalist Pietro Matthioli described the fruits as yellow. We can hazard that the original wild variety may have been a two-celled type similar to our cherry tomatoes. We have a yellow one of those that occasionally reseeds itself in the garden. It certainly is tougher and more disease resistant than most of the others we grow, so perhaps it harks back to the original.
Although Italians adopted the newcomer almost immediately, the tomato was viewed with suspicion in England. It had somehow become associated with the mandrake, which—although considered an aphrodisiac—also could be dangerously toxic. So tomatoes, too, became known as “love apples.” In the late 1500s, John Gerard wrote that “they yield very little nourishment to the body, and the same naught and corrupt.”
It’s possible that tomatoes actually could have sickened the wealthy who ate off of pewter plates, since the acid in the fruits may have activated the lead in that pewter. But, in that case, it would have been the dinnerware, not the dinner, that was at fault. Still, any member of the deadly nightshade family had to be viewed with suspicion until it proved itself.
I recall once reading a clever short story where a traitorous cook tried to poison George Washington with tomatoes in his stew, and couldn’t understand why the general remained unaffected. But the tomato actually was grown by venturesome American gardeners--including Thomas Jefferson--in the 1700s. So it probably just wasn’t well known enough for most people to be comfortable with eating it. Those weird “horned” green worms that attack the plants didn’t help, as they sometimes were assumed to be venomous.
Legend holds that in 1920 a Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson proposed to consume a basket of tomatoes on the steps of the local courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, just to prove that they were edible. Although the idea of crowds of spectators gathering in hopes of witnessing his death throes makes a good story--but a depressing comment on human nature--it most likely is just a story. Granted, there was a Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson thereabouts at that time. But, as Andrew Smith points out in The Tomato in America, neither the local newspaper nor Johnson's own writings make any mention of such an event.
The tomato has since caught on in a big way, but you may still argue with your kin about whether it is a fruit or vegetable. A tomato technically is a fruit, but in 1893 the Supreme Court pronounced it a vegetable so it could be taxed. Therefore, all of you are right!
Images: The antique banner image is by Basilius Bessler from the 1620 Hortus Eystettensis, courtesy of plantillustrations.org. The photos are my own.