Updated: May 15, 2022
"The tomato offers its gift of fiery color and cool completeness."
Each year, since the end of WWII, on the last Wednesday of August in the Valencian town of Buñol, people gather for combat. Their weapon of choice: the tomato. Called La Tomatina, thousands come to this East Spanish town to participate in a tomato war. Lasting about an hour, combatants hurl tomatoes at each other in the town square. In 2015, it was estimated that nearly 320,000 pounds of tomatoes were used. Afterward, fire trucks hose down the square and the people covered with tomato debris. This has spurred other festivities in other places like the Colorado Texas Tomato War. Here Coloradans storm a straw "Alamo" defended by Texans.
The tomato is pervasive in all the cuisines of the world. When we think of Italian food, we immediately conjure up pasta covered with tomato sauce. Tomatoes have become a traditional ingredient of salads. and are popular plants for home gardeners. Yet there was a time when the tomato was simply a wild plant known only to the western stretches of South America.
Solanum pimpinellifolium, commonly referred to as "pimp", is the wild ancestor of all the modern varieties of tomatoes. It bears small pea-sized fruit with a red or yellow color. Native of Peru, the plant is well adapted to a variety of different climates from the dry, rain-starved high deserts to humid, tropical forests. Tomatoes were well-known among the peoples of South and Central America. The earliest record of domestication is from the Aztecs around 700 AD. The word tomato comes from the Aztec word "tomatl".
It was perhaps Cortez who first discovered tomatoes growing in Montezuma's gardens. He and other Spanish explorers brought back seeds and introduced Europe to the fruit. The first varieties were probably yellow in color. The Italian word for tomato was "pomi d'oro" (which evolved into the modern "pomodoro") or "golden apple". The French would call them "pommes d'amour" or "love apples" as it was believed tomatoes were aphrodisiacs. For a time after their introduction to Europeans, tomatoes remained merely an ornamental plant. People actually feared to eat the fruit. This fear stemmed from many different reasons.
During the 16th century, much of the dinnerware of the wealthy were made of pewter. Tomatoes are known for their acidity, and the acid reacts with the pewter to form traces of lead. People eating tomatoes off of pewter plates were giving themselves lead poisoning. At the time no one understood this chemical reaction, and therefore, they thought the tomato itself was poisonous. On top of this, the plant looks similar to another group of plants called nightshades. Nightshades are highly toxic, and they have a long history of being used in all sorts of poisons. The French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort gave the newly discovered plants the name "Lycopersicon esculentum" which means "wolfpeach". It was thought the fruit was round and luscious like a peach and perhaps appealing to wolves. Tournefort was one of the earliest botanists to argue that tomatoes are not nightshades but more closely related to potatoes, peppers, and eggplants (all, like the tomato, non-native fruits and vegetables to Europe).
No one knows for sure when Europeans started to eat tomatoes on a regular basis. It is surmised that it began with the lower classes. (The poor didn't eat off of pewter plates so they didn't need to worry about lead poisoning.) By the beginning of the 17th century, tomatoes were appearing in Spanish cuisine and from there, they would travel to southern Italy, Naples in particular, which at the time was under Spanish control. Chefs were beginning to warm to the idea of using tomatoes as they discovered the fruit lent flavor to various dishes. This was at a time when spices were limited or expensive. In one recipe, tomatoes were fried in a pan along with onions, squash, and eggplant to create something similar to ratatouille. Sicilian longshoremen boiled dried pasta, drained it, and then covered it with chopped tomatoes. By the mid-18th century, vermicelli with pummarola (the Neapolitan word for tomato) was a staple of southern Italian diets.
Antonio Latini (1642 - 1692) is credited with one of the earliest written recipes for tomato sauce. Latini was a steward for Cardinal Antonio Barberini, a nephew of Pope Urban VII and then to Don Stefano Salcedo, a minister to the Spanish viceroy of Naples.
He wrote a collection of recipes entitled "Lo scalco alla moderna" ("The Modern Steward"). Included in this book is a recipe for "salsa di pomadoro, alla spagnola" - tomato sauce, in the Spanish style. He did not, however, suggest putting it over pasta. More akin to pico di gallo, it would have been served over meat rather than noodles. (Here's one person's experience in recreating this recipe.)
Many of what we consider traditional Italian dishes did not emerge until the 19th century, in particular after Italian unification in the 1870s. One of these is pizza. The story goes that King Umberto and his Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889. The queen was bored with all the French cuisine that was popular among the upper society. Raffaele Esposito, a well-known chef in Naples, was summoned. He was commissioned to present to the queen local Neapolitan dishes. Esposito created three different pizzas: one with marina sauce and garlic, one with anchovies, and the third with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and a sprig of basil (coincidently representing the three colors of the Italian flag).
The queen choose the third pizza, and Esposito named it margherita pizza after her. The modern-day pizza was born. The people of Naples had enjoyed baked flat dough topped with tomatoes and cheese for nearly 200 years, but Esposito helped introduce the rest of Italy and then the world to this local favorite.
The advent of canning helped propel the tomato to its current-day popularity. The acids in the tomato helped in preserving the fruit, and early on, it became a good candidate for canning. Due to this, the tomato began to become a staple in diets around the time of the Civil War. Later, Joseph A. Campell created a recipe for condensed tomato soup in 1897 and sold it in a can. Meanwhile, since the 1840s, ketchup, which was usually produced and sold locally, was bottled and sold nationally. (Heinz ketchup was first introduced in 1876.)
Tomatoes are actually the berry of the plant. (In fact, wild tomatoes are perennials but most tomatoes are grown as annuals.) But most of us consider the tomato a vegetable. This is because of a U.S. Supreme court decision. The issue arose in 1887 when the United States imposed a 10% tariff on vegetables but not fruit. A tomato importer, John Nix, sued the tax collector for New York, Edward Hedden, claiming that tomatoes were fruits and therefore exempt from the tariff. The U.S. Supreme court ruled that tomatoes were vegetables thereby going against botanical science. Their reasoning was that in common usage that was how tomatoes were referred to and were served with dinner as a principal part of the meal. (Nix vs Hedden, 1893).
Tomatoes have become a ubiquitous ingredient in culinary traditions around the world. It is used in sauces, soups, ketchup, and salads. It is sliced, diced, peeled, and crushed. It is found in home and community gardens. It is grown on windows sills and using hydroponics. From the mid-19th century, there was an interest in developing improved varieties of tomatoes with the trend towards a more uniform red color and larger sizes. Today there are hundreds of different variations: cherry, grape, plum, and beefsteak. Critics like to point out that this over hybridization and, more recently, genetic modification (GMO) has left modern-day tomatoes tasteless. There is a growing interest in heirloom tomatoes. These are tomato plants that have been naturally pollinated and are of non-hybrid varieties. Generally, the seeds have been passed down through the generations. Regardless, our tomatoes are almost 95% similar to their wild ancestor Solanum pimpinellifolium.
Many of the ingredients we associate with traditional European cuisine - tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and peppers - actually originated in the Americas. Even after the discovery of the New World, like the tomato, it would take a long time for these to influence the palettes of our European ancestors. Much of what we eat nowadays emerged closer to the modern era.
More on the history of the tomato:
Why is this Wild, Pea-sized Tomato So Important: Barry Estabrook (Smithsonian Magazine)
Why the Tomato Was Feared in Europe for More Than 200 Years: K. Annabelle Smith (Smithsonian Magazine)
The History of Tomatoes as Food: Peggy Trowbridge Filippone (The Spruce Eats blog)