How could I not love tomatoes? I grew up in Ohio, where the official state drink is tomato juice! In 1870, Reynoldsburg resident Alexander Livingston began growing tomatoes commercially, and in 1965, the Ohio General Assembly made tomato juice the state’s official beverage. Now there is an annual Tomato Festival honoring Livingston and the role of tomatoes in Ohio’s economy.

I’ve always loved tomatoes. As a child I sometimes took a saltshaker to the garden and gorged on warm tomatoes seconds after plucking them from the vine.

I’m just one of the millions—billions?—who have loved tomatoes over the centuries.

Tomatoes in South America

We are so accustomed to modern, home-grown, hothouse, farmers’ market and store-bought tomatoes that it’s hard to imagine them growing wild. Indeed, today’s tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) have undergone centuries of cultivation and hybridization. Chances are, we wouldn’t even recognize their ancestors as tomatoes. Today, there are more than 10,000 varieties of tomatoes.

Results of researchers’ genetic studies indicate that the modern cultivated tomato is most closely related to a weed-like tomato group still found in Mexico. At that time, tomatoes were a wild, blueberry-sized fruit.

Once upon a time, tomatoes grew wild in the Andes of western South America. These were a semi-domesticated intermediate type of tomato. Ana Caicedo and Hamid Razifard, leading a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, recently published the results of their research into how tomatoes evolved. Their findings show that “about 7,000 years ago, the weedy tomatoes may have been re-domesticated into the cultivated tomato.”

The indigenous people cultivated them. When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, they found the inhabitants growing a food crop called “tomatl” in the native language.

The Tomato Goes to Spain

Deborah J. Benoit serves as the Extension Master Gardener at the University of Vermont. She writes, “Tomato seeds were brought from Mexico to Spain by those early explorers. From there the plant spread to Italy by the mid-1500s where it began to be incorporated into regional cuisine. Over the following decades, tomato plants were cultivated throughout Europe, but primarily as an ornamental plant.”

“Still Life of Artichokes and Tomatoes in a Landscape” by Luis Egidio Meléndez (1716-1780)

Tomatoes have had many nicknames, including wolf peach and gold apple. In France, new tomato fans called them love apples and thought they might be an aphrodisiac. (Actually, amorous humans have thought dozens of foods work as aphrodisiacs over the years. You can look it up!)

Because many Europeans mistakenly considered the tomato to be poisonous, they also referred to it as the “poison apple.” True, tomatoes are related to deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). Also true, the leaves, stems and roots of tomato plants contain solanine, a neurotoxin, and so humans should not eat them.

Because of its similarity to nightshade, some people even thought that tomatoes were a part of potions that allowed witches to fly and turned unsuspecting men into werewolves!

But the strongest “proof” of tomatoes being poisonous was the fact that upper class Europeans did die after consuming tomatoes. However, the fault was not with the tomato but with the pewter dinnerware the rich used. The high level of acidity in tomatoes leached lead from the pewter, and those wealthy enough to afford pewter dinnerware died from lead poisoning after eating tomato-based dishes.

American Tomatoes

Much like the turkey, the tomato travelled to Europe and back to the New World in the 1700s before American colonists thought it fit to grace their tables. Thomas Jefferson reportedly grew tomatoes at Monticello and enjoyed eating them. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that tomatoes became popular throughout the United States (pizza may have had a hand in tomatoes’ social acceptance). Today, tomatoes are the most popular home-grown vegetable crop in the country.

In spite of the general acceptance and use of tomatoes as a vegetable, botanically they are a fruit (actually a berry). But, as a result of the case of Nix v. Hedden, which the Supreme Court decided in 1893, legally tomatoes are a vegetable according to the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883.


And surprise! Early ketchups didn’t involve tomatoes at all. Ketchup originated in China. The first version was based on pickled fish and looked more like a soy sauce – dark and thin. People called it “keh-jup” or “koe-cheup,”

The condiment made its way west via European merchants, taking with it Westernized pronunciations. Early recipes for ketchup (or catsup) used a wide variety of ingredients, e.g., mushrooms, walnuts, and shellfish.

In 1812, the first recipe for tomato-based ketchup debuted. Historians credit James Mease, a Philadelphia scientist, with developing the recipe. He wrote that the choicest ketchup came from “love apples,” as Philadelphians then called tomatoes.

Bottom line: Tomatoes have come a long way, baby. But what’s not to love?

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