On my balcony garden, I can be found growing all sorts of things in a hodgepodge of colors, with fruits and vegetables nestled among flowers of all sorts. And every year, I ensure to grow at least one variety of tomato, if not more. I particularly like cherry tomatoes, which I grow in large clay pots that I stake with bamboo sticks and admire as they begin to fruit.
This fixation with tomatoes doesn’t end with me, however, and I’m convinced that this obsession must be hereditary.
When I visit my aunt in the summer, it can be relied upon that she’ll send me home with paper bags full of ripe, red tomatoes, which is always a delight! She grows tons of them in her backyard — some right in the ground, and others in containers that line her house and back patio. My sister is no exception to this fanaticism. For a long time, she had no outdoor space whatsoever but still managed to successfully grow cherry tomatoes in a sunny bay window.
Let’s just say that I love tomatoes. Not only are they deliciously juicy when pulled straight from the vine, but they’re absolutely beautiful and quite easy to grow no matter where you plant them.
But, I didn’t always adore these versatile plants.
Thinking back to when I was a kid, I used to dread the lunches my mum would send me to school with. Whereas most kids seemed to show up with macaroni and cheese, or those pre-packaged cracker sandwich kits, I usually had well-salted tomato slices (stewing in soggy plastic wrap for half the day), accompanied by a well-buttered sandwich. It didn’t matter what kind of sandwich it was either; there was always butter on it. I love my mum, but I can safely say that no one ever wanted to trade lunches with me!
And, because of these soggy lunch tomatoes, I can matter-of-factly say that for most of my childhood, I flat out hated tomatoes. It’s funny how your tastes change, isn’t it?
From jarring your homemade tomato sauce to throwing them into a simple, yet delicious village salad alongside cucumbers, and feta cheese, the recipes for tomatoes are endless. I can’t imagine the culinary world without them.
As mundane as they seem (being easily available and widely grown), I’ve never given much thought to tomatoes or where they come from — Not until recently anyhow, and, as I’ve unexpectedly discovered, they have quite a curious past.
South and Central American Origins
Originally from the Andean region of South America, wild tomatoes are found mainly throughout Peru, and Ecuador, with similar varieties seen in Chile, and Bolivia.
Wild tomatoes are tiny in size (much smaller than a cherry tomato), tart in flavor, and are usually orange or yellow, making them quite different from the plump red tomatoes we’re used to seeing. And, because wild tomatoes (known as “pimps”) are the predecessors to all the varieties we have today, they are incredibly important for botanical research. Unlike today’s hybrid versions, pimp tomatoes are impressively hardy and can grow in all sorts of extreme climates, whereas modern tomato species are less hardy and prone to disease. Sadly, due to modern commercial farming methods, and the use of herbicides, pimp tomatoes have made their way onto the endangered species list, and are on the brink of extinction.
First harvested by the mysterious peoples of the Inca empire, tomatoes eventually made their way north through the Mayans of Central America, and into the rich Aztec civilization of Mexico. Not only did the Aztec farm tomatoes on a scale unknown before them, but they also managed to augment the look and taste of wild tomatoes to produce larger, sweeter varieties that looked more similar to today’s cherry tomatoes. In fact, the name we’re familiar with today originates from the Aztec word xitomatl.
On a side note — did you know that the Aztecs used to use cacao beans as currency? They certainly did! And, if you wanted to purchase a handful of small ripe tomatoes, that would have cost you a whopping 1 cacao bean.
It’s said that the Aztecs of Mexico and Pueblo peoples of southwestern USA not only consumed tomatoes as part of their diet, but they also believed that consuming tomato seeds would result in being able to understand the future and open their minds to otherworldly knowledge.
Journeying across the Atlantic
When the Americas were first colonized by Europeans, early Spanish explorers and conquistadors returned home with bounties of new and interesting items, many of which we’re familiar with today — commodities such as chocolate, tobacco, chili peppers, corn, potatoes, and yes, tomatoes as well.
Met with both curiosity and distrust, many Europeans thought that tomatoes were highly poisonous and could kill you, nicknaming them poison apples.
This unfortunate rumor probably started because the unripened fruit bore an uncanny similarity to both the toxic Mediterranean mandrake plant, as well as deadly nightshade. I suppose I can understand why this misinterpretation could have happened, I mean, tomatoes are technically part of the nightshade family (along with potatoes and peppers), so they weren’t completely wrong, except for the fact that they aren’t poisonous.
To further fill people’s hearts with fear, there’s a theory suggesting that because so many wealthy Europeans ate off of pewter plates (that were basically riddled with lead), the acid found in tomato juice essentially did have a killer effect when paired together. No wonder people were dubious, I mean, if people were dropping like flies from eating tomatoes on pewter plates, I’d probably avoid this fruit too!
And, in a strange twist of the imagination, it seems people really went off the deep end with tomato terror, believing that witches used the fruit for their wicked elixirs (which again stems back to the mistaken identity as mandrakes and deadly nightshade).
While being considered dangerous, tomatoes were also believed to be an aphrodisiac and were named pomme d’amour, or “love apples” by the French. Why? Well, again, we can thank the confusion with mandrakes for that.
It’s long been believed that although poisonous, mandrakes were also considered a fertility booster and an aphrodisiac. Going as far back as the book of Genesis, it’s written that Rachel, who was childless, barters with her sister Leah, who had many children, to take a portion of her mandrake bounty, in the hopes that it would help in producing a child with husband Jacob.
Interestingly, despite the long-drawn-out misidentification between tomatoes and mandrakes, there have been recent findings that suggest tomatoes are, in fact, an aphrodisiac since they promote increased blood flow throughout the body. So, for sexy time, make sure to eat lots of tomatoes alongside those oysters (wink, wink).
For centuries, it seems, Europeans kept tomatoes solely as an ornamental novelty and avoided them for consumption. And, it wasn’t until the 18th century, that Europeans and colonized North America began to see tomatoes as both delicious and edible food.
No longer seen as a deadly enemy, the tomato really took off in popularity, spreading like wildfire to almost every country on earth.
Cultivating tons of hybrids — which make up the base of most tomato varieties we know today, this fruit has become a staple in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Filipino, and of course, Latin American cuisine, to name a few. Not only that but, for many, the cultural significance of tomatoes is undeniable.
With traditions such as Spain’s La Tomatina or the Canadian obsession with summertime Caesars, the evolution of the tomato is certainly a surprising one. And, from their Andean origins in South America, to their unique journey throughout human history, there’s no doubt that tomatoes are a bonafide, and well-loved staple for pretty much everyone, everywhere.