tomatoes
tomato
Tomato image via Shutterstock: Shebeko

When you think of Italian food, what comes to mind? Caprese salad? Lasagna? Margherita pizza? With very few exceptions, it’s likely that the cuisine of the boot immediately makes you think of the tomato — an odd juxtaposition between the modern and historic reality of the cuisine. After all, for centuries, the tomato was associated with its taxonomical group, Solanaceae, also known as the deadly nightshade family, and assumed to be poison.

So how did a fruit that made most people wary become one of the most well known ingredients in Italian cuisine, not to mention others throughout Europe? To answer, we have to reach into the past.

tomato
Tomato Drawing Image via Shutterstock: Olga Lobareva

The History Of The Tomato: An American Food

While today, we commonly associate the tomato with Italy, the fruit did not originate in Europe, but rather in South America. The first tomatoes were brought to Europe from what is today Peru by Spanish conquistadors, where it was being called tomatl, an Aztec word that is a very clear influence for the word tomato.

European Beginnings

tomato
First European Representation of a Tomato, By Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500-1577) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When the Spanish brought the tomato back to Europe, it was mostly used as a decorative plant — even though they were aware that the Aztecs did consume it, they believed that it was a food best eaten in cold weather. It spread throughout the Spanish Empire, including to Naples — but we’ll get back to that in a second.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, the tomato was developing a fairly poor reputation. In England, it was grown but used as a decorative plant for a very good reason: tomatoes were seen, thanks to an unfortunate mistake by John Gerard in 1597 in his book, Herball, or General Historie of Plantsas a poisonous fruit and a member of the deadly nightshade family.

tomato
Bittersweet nightshade image via Shutterstock: A.S. Floro

Of course, Gerard can’t be fully to blame for this mistake. Tomatoes do strongly resemble the fruits of other nightshade plants, like bittersweet nightshade or black nightshade, which were known poisons in Europe and not seen as fit for consumption.

But other Europeans attributed far different qualities to the tomato. One of the earliest European references to tomatoes was made by Italian herbalist and physicist Pietro Andrae Matthioli in 1544, who classified it as not only a nightshade but a mandrake, which were known aphrodisiacs. This, in fact, is where the tomato gets its early French name, pomme d’amour or love apple.

tomato
Tomato image via Shutterstock: TOM.RUETHAI

It wasn’t until 1692 that Joseph Pitton de Tournefort disputed tomatoes’ belonging to the solanum classification, stating that tomatoes were not as closely related to other nightshades as had previously been thought and instead more closely related to potatoes, peppers and eggplants. Of course, seeing as at this point in time only the eggplant was commonly consumed in Europe, the tomato had not been taken off the hook entirely.

Culinary Beginnings For The Tomato

The first time that the tomato appeared in European cooking may well have been in Italy. As Naples had been part of the Spanish Empire at the time of the conquistadors (from 1504 to 1714, to be precise), the tomato’s Italian sojourn began here, in what would later be known as the capital of pizza.

tomato
Pewter plate image via Shutterstock: taigi

The Italians began growing it in about 1550, and throughout the 16th century, Europeans in the south began to adapt to this fruit; in the north, they still kept their distance a while longer, continuing to claim that tomatoes were poisonous. This continued, in part, because of the way flatware was made in Europe; the rich ate their food off of pewter, a material with high lead content. Because of the high acid content of tomatoes, the lead from the plates was leeched out and into the food.

In Italy and Spain, however, the tomato only increased in popularity as time went on. The first tomato sauce recipe published in Italian was the tomato sauce “in the Spanish style” in Lo scalco alla moderna (Naples, 1692), a recipe attributed to the chef to the Spanish viceroy.

The American Influence

But perhaps the biggest influence to bring tomatoes to Europe in a widespread way was actually their return to their continent of origin. In the 1800s, mass migration from Italy to America made tomatoes popular in North America, arriving by way of Europe instead of via neighboring Mexico, and this popularity would only make tomatoes a bigger star back in Europe.

Tomatoes were actually first planted in the colonies long before: in 1710, they were referenced in Botanologia, a book by herbalist William Salmon, printed in the Carolinas. While Thomas Jefferson, who began growing them in 1781, did not bring them to the States, a feat often attributed to the early president, he did help them increase in popularity, though solely as a decorative plant.

tomato
New Orleans style red beans and rice image via Shutterstock: HG Photography

As far as culinary uses for the tomato in the early years of the States, New Orleans and Florida, with Spanish and French influences, get most of the credit. The Creole cuisine developing in New Orleans thanks to wealthy Spanish and French immigrants meant that tomato recipes featured in New Orleans featured as early as 1812.

By 1822, people were widely aware of the tomato Stateside but unsure of how to cook it. Hundreds of recipes began being shared in local newspapers, and none were more popular than that of the Italians.

tomato
Pizza margherita image via Shutterstock: svario photo

However, it wasn’t until the Neapolitan pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito invented the Margherita pizza in honor of Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889, 28 years after Italian unification, that the tomato truly clinched its place in Italian — and European — cuisine.

By Emily Monaco

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After pursuing a Masters degree in 19th century French literature, she devoted herself full-time to writing about food, drink and culture shock in France, a topic she discusses extensively on her blog, Tomato Kumato. Emily is always on the lookout for an excellent cup of coffee, a good beer, and fantastic cheese.

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3 Comments

  1. Before reading this, I didn’t know a lot about the history of European food. It is interesting how in the past, the tomato wasn’t a very popular food, but then changed made its way into many recipes. I had no idea how the tomato also influenced American food. Thank you for the information on the history of Italian food!

  2. I don’t where you got that Aztecs ate tomato cold? The Aztec taught the Spanish several ways to prepare tomatoes including cooked or mixed with peppers and their are accounts of cooked sauces of tomatos (where later on Spanish taught the Italians when they occupied southern Italy) . Also he Aztecs raised several varieties of tomatoes, red tomatos were called xictomatl, and green tomatoes tomatl ( how this be came the popular name idk)

  3. Thanks For Sharing this amazing recipe. My family loved it. I will be sharing this recipe with my friends. Hope the will like it.

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