A Bit of Saucy Tomato History

The human race hasn’t always gotten along with tomatoes.

In fact, in Europe during the 1500’s, tomatoes killed the rich and fed the poor. Literally.

The reason? The wealthy population ate their food off of pewter plates using pewter flatware. Pewter contains lead. The acid of a tomato would cause the lead in the pewter to leach out into the food, in essence, poisoning the individual who consumed it. The poorer populations didn’t have pewter dishes or utensils. Instead, they ate their food from wooden dishes with a wooden spoon – which saved their lives when it came to consuming tomatoes. As a result, you had part of the population crying out beware the tomato! – While the other part cried out more tomatoes please! It must have been a confusing time to be alive.

Tomatoes travelled across the ocean. Twice. But not in the direction you might think. They started off in the Andes of South America, of all improbable places, and have been traced all the way back to the Aztec civilization, circa 700 AD – making the tomato native to the Americas, not Europe as most people assume. (Bye the by, the Aztec name for the tomato translates into “plump thing with a navel”. Hmmm.)

So, the tomato took its maiden voyage east, via South American explorers heading to Europe in the 1500’s. These folks introduced the food to the southern European regions where it quickly started making its way north. As mentioned, the Italian population cultivated its love/hate relationship with the tomato, but eventually learned to love them thanks to the assurance of millions of Italian people who were poor and happily consumed them without dying. Thus, the tomato was allowed to rise to prominence in Italian cuisine.

Then the tomato took another ocean voyage, only this time going west, to a fledgling America. The immigrating Italians as well as the French are credited with bringing the tomato to the young United States in the late 17th to early 18th centuries, where it quickly became one of the most valued vegetables – no wait, fruits – no wait, vegetables. Does anybody have the answer to that question?!

YES! Ready!?

A tomato is botanically…a fruit! But legally…a vegetable!

Just how did that whole mess happen? I hesitate to share the answer in this day and age, but the truth is – the government did it. The U.S. Supreme Court “officially” changed the status from a fruit to a vegetable in 1893 based on the fact that people prepared their tomatoes as they would any vegetable. Hmmm? Sound fishy? Right. Some historians also suggest that the status was changed from fruit to vegetable so that the tomato importers would have to pay the tariff imposed on incoming veggies. But that could be fake news.

Anyway! To this day, not everybody is willing to go along with that 1893 Supreme Court ruling. Tennessee and Ohio rebelled, naming the tomato their official state fruit. Then New Jersey came along and named it their official state vegetable. You say tomato, I say tomawto.

The bottom line is that tomatoes enjoy a very high standing among people all over the world now that pewter dishes are out. Recently, 600,000 tomato seeds traveled to the International Space Station where they enjoyed the experience of zero gravity. Then they came back again. They just needed to get away for a while before being distributed to classrooms all over Canada as part of the “Tomatosphere” experiments.

I think it’s safe to say that, in the 21st Century, we love our tomatoes. To the moon and back.

This program is funded 77% at $128,051 by federal funds and 23% at $38,249 by nongovernmental sources for a total amount of $166,300. The federal funds are received from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), provided by the Missouri Department of Social Services, Family Support Division.

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