The History of the Tomato 🍅

The History of the Tomato

You say tomato, we say tomato—we’re doing a full history on these delicious bastards. Versatile to the extreme and ready and willing to accompany a billion recipes, it’s about time to worship these things as Gods amongst us.

Brace yourselves then, as from soups to pizzas and everything else we delve into the history of the tomato. Starting with…

What’s a Tomato?

It’s a glossy red edible fruit with a mushy centre consisting of seeds and pulpy goodness.

Despite popular belief, the tomato is indeed a fruit. Not a vegetable. The botanical classification is definitely on the fruit side of things.

Botanical fruits have at least one seed growing within. As tomatoes have loads of seeds within, it means it’s a fruit.

Of course, most people think of it as a vegetable all the same. We sure do. And it’s a core ingredient in millions of recipes.

We suppose it’s most commonly associated with many sauces, as a pizza base (see the history of pizza), and in soups. Regardless, they’re mega tasty and extra good for you. Which is why we love them so—humans have a long love affair with them.

The History of the Tomato

This all begins with the wild ancestor of the tomato, which is the solanum pimpinellifolium (currant tomato) in South America. It’s still grown to this day, but is thought of as a “wild” tomato rather than a cultivated one.

The difference? Solanum pimpinellifolium are the size of a pea.

Cultivation and domestication began around the time of the Aztecs and Mesoamerica. Of course, it’s impossible to determine when exactly this all began as no one kept a blog to educate future generations.

But it’s believed to be around the 500 BC mark (tomatoes were already being cultivated in the south of Mexico by then).

There the naming arrived in the form of Náhuatl, which is the Aztec word for tomatl (“swelling fruit”). Aztec cultivation led to the tomato becoming fatter and pulpier, which led to the name change of xitomatl (“plump with navel”).

This lumpier type of tomato, which was a mutation on the diddy-sized ones, is potentially the direct ancestors of what we see in shops today.

As for the naming bit, it was advanced later on by the Spanish tomate, as on their various adventures (during The Age of Discovery) they introduced tomatoes to Europe. In Italy, they were initially called pomodoro (“golden apple”) whilst the French dubbed them pomme d’amour (“love apple”).

To begin with, across large swathes of Europe, the fruit was grown only as an ornamental plant.

In fact, botanists were suspicious of them as they looked a bit like belladonna and nightshade—these are deadly to humans. This led to the tomato getting an unfair rep as being a bit dodgy.

There’s some reality in that concern, as the roots and leaves of tomato plants are toxic (containing solanine, a neurotoxin).

But the Spanish were eating the things with much relish.

In the UK, tomatoes weren’t grown until the 1590s. John Gerard (1545-1612), a herbalist, was one of the first cultivators. But he was well aware the Spanish were already eating them.

Despite that, he was convinced the fruit was toxic.

This mentality prevailed until the mid-18th century. By then, us Brits had worked out they’re pretty handy for all manner of foodstuffs. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that commoners accepted them as normal everyday eating.

By that point, the name had morphed further into the English tomato we all know and love. But the introduction to North America was also in development, beginning in 1710.

Again, the Americans grew them as ornamental plants (seems very weird having to type that repeatedly—imagine inviting some friends round and explaining to them you’re just growing those tomatoes for ornamental purposes).

That’s because US citizens were also sceptical of the fruit.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that they gained widespread recognition as edible and tasty. Now, of course, it’s a commercial powerhouse. The US tomato industry reported a production value of $615.88 million in 2022.

There are individual stories for every country on how tomatoes spread, like a delicious plague, across each continent. To cover them all, it feels like we’d have to rant for another 1,000 words.

We think this reflects the fascinating way foodstuffs can gradually seep into each culture, often in different ways, such as with Spain’s relish to eat the things from the get-go.

Whereas other bits of Europe eyed them warily for decades.

These days, tomatoes aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. Global exports totalled some $9.7 billion in 2018.

The Health Benefits of Tomatoes

It’s fair to say these SOBs are a superfood. They’re low in calories, yet provide a vast amount of healthy stuffs:

  • Vitamin C
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin K
  • Folate
  • Antioxidants (notable lycopene)

It’s lycopene that makes tomatoes a healthy powerhouse. You need to cook them for maximum health benefits, as the longer the tomato cook the more the lycopene goes supernova.

And that provides loads of health benefits, from reducing the risk of heart disease to preventing certain cancers.

It’s a reminder to the vegetarians/vegans who claim a raw diet is the healthiest… you’re wrong. Some veg/fruit needs cooking for maximum health oomph. You hear!?

Tomatoes in Culture

These fruits are so ubiquitous these days, we forget just how deeply ingrained they are in society. They seem to be a part of almost every meal.

Beans on toast—yes, tomatoes are a big part of it! Those baked beans are in a tomato-based sauce. Little, insidious ways like that. The tomato is a part of your life and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Artistic Tomatoes

Andy Warhol's Tomato Soup

From an artistic side, the first thing that springs to mind for us is Andy Warhol and his wacky hair. Plus the whole Campbell’s Soup Cans pop art thing (see the history of soup for more soupy goodness), which he launched onto the world in 1962.

There’s also the case of Pablo Picasso and Plant de tomate (circa 1944).

Plant de tomate by Pablo Picasso

More recently, there’s the case of the Just Stop Oil protesters here in England. They threw   a can of tomato soup over Van Gogh’s legendary Sunflowers.

They then glued themselves against a wall. This was in protest against the low quality of canned tomato soup and rubbish modern art such as Van Gogh.

This is PROOF the tomato is capable of making art… and destroying it.

La Tomatina

One of the more famous foodstuff festivals is La Tomatina, which is held in the Valencian town of Buñol. It’s held annually at the end of each August.

The event came about in August 1945, when some revellers took part in a parade of musicians. This spilled over into a pitched riot, resulting in a nearby vegetable store being looted for weapons—in this case, tomatoes.

A year later and a pre-planned riot took place again, resulting in a fine tradition where many tonnes of tomatoes are wasted for a bit of a laugh.

Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes

In Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978), a spoof horror film, there are many tomatoes. And they go on a bit of an insane killing spree.

It’s not a great film, but it has its moments. Most of them involving tomatoes.

Tomatoes in Video Games

In 2002, the role-playing game Tomato Adventure launched on the Game Boy Advance.

By Japanese developer AlphaDream, it’s about controlling a character through the Ketchup Kingdom to gain access to Gimmick Palace (a giant tomato).

There was a similar game on the Nintendo Entertainment System called Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom that neglects to remember most of its “vegetables” in the game are really fruit. Still, great commercial!

Other than those two, we can’t remember any other video games specifically about tomatoes. However, they do crop up all over the place in games.

Perhaps now is the time for a tomato-based $100 million budget AAA Grand Theft Auto clone (or some such). You heard it here first.

The Enormous Variety of Tomatoes

Jack Bishop is a tomato expert and we’re jealous of him.

But he does highlight the staggering range of variety from this fruit. Think of the tomato and you’ll picture this SOB right here 🍅. Red, round, plump, and probably a communist.

Truth is, there are loads and loads of types of tomatoes of different colours, shapes, and sizes. And we’re going to cover a few tomato types here:

  • Cherry
  • Roma
  • San Marzano
  • Better Boy
  • Blue
  • Celebrity
  • Early Girl
  • Campari
  • Gardener’s Delight
  • Cherokee
  • Black Krim
  • Mortgage Lifter
  • Brandywine
  • Moneymaker
  • Tigerella
  • Kumato
  • Green Zebra
  • Mr. Stripey
  • Big Rainbow
  • Big Beef
  • Santorino
  • Japanese Black Trifele
  • Lukullus

There are at least 10,000 tomato varieties available, so we’re going to cut the list short there. We’re not typing all that lot out.

Tomatoes on the vine are the most common ones you’ll buy in supermarkets.

Cooking With Tomatoes

Cripes, where do you even start with this?! With The Hottest Man Alive (trademarked) Jamie Oliver, that’s where goddammit!

Here he suggests a salad, Bloody Mary, soup, hot sauce, and pizza.

But you can cook these things up broiled, roasted, stewed, sautéed, fried, and cooked. You stick stick them in the microwave for a few minutes.

There are many millions of potential recipe combinations, so we’ll leave that up to you. Our recommendation? Get ’em eat daily! It’s good for you. 🍅

Dispense with some gibberish!

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