Sep 18, 2023

MADORIN: The complicated history of tomatoes

Posted Sep 18, 2023 8:00 PM
Photo by Karen Madorin
Photo by Karen Madorin


Besides checking for ripeness, how much time do you spend thinking about garden tomatoes or those for sale at the market? If you’re like me, not much.

Years back, I learned colonial Americans considered tomatoes poisonous so though gardeners grew them ornamentally, they didn’t eat them. Recently, this factoid drove me down a tomato rabbit hole after my daughter and I disagreed on when Americans first welcomed tomatoes as food rather than décor.

Once I started reading, I couldn’t quit, and here you’ll find some of my discoveries.

Tomatoes are a New World plant in the nightshade family that scientists think first started in the Andes about 80,000 years ago. Since no one now alive actually saw those vines and fruits, they can only speculate.

Researchers suggest those ancient orbs grew to about cherry tomato size and may have been yellow or orange in color. Somehow (it’s disputed), some seeds found their way to Meso America somewhere between northern Costa Rica and Mexico. Ancient gardeners then cultivated what they called tomatl in their Nahuatl language.

Additionally, they grew peppers, also in the nightshade family. Apparently, eating either one didn’t harm the population, which I’m guessing contributed to the development of salsa.

When conquistador Cortes returned to the Old World following his foray into Aztec-controlled Mexico, he introduced tomato seeds to a climate where they thrived. Southern Europeans enjoyed this new flavor sensation.

Unfortunately, once tomatoes made their way to England, they gained a bad rap as a poison.

While some blamed the plant’s nightshade connection, modern scientists attribute resulting illness to the use of pewter plates, once popular in Great Britain. Acidic tomatoes leached lead from them, triggering toxic levels in those who ate from them regularly. As a result, southern Europeans developed plenty of tomato dishes while, in general, the English didn’t.

Brits transferred their food prejudice across the Atlantic via adventuresome settlers.

Ironically or maybe expectedly, folks who settled the South happily consumed tomato-based recipes.

New Englanders continued to reject what they called poison apples til the mid-1800s when savvy seed and food salesmen publicly demonstrated they could devour quantities of this questionable ingredient without ill effect.

Karen Madorin
Karen Madorin

The Civil War accelerated acceptance. Canneries boomed during those difficult years, and tomatoes canned well. Interestingly, that led to a tomato-generated Supreme Court decision two decades later.

The 1883 Tariff Act imposed duties on imported veggies but not on fruits. Clever entrepreneurs responsible for canning those plump orbs focused on the fact they were botanically fruits, not veggies, depriving the government of taxable income.

In response, tax collectors argued they functioned as vegetables and thus should be taxed.

In 1893, the Supreme Court settled the argument. In a
9-0 decision, the Bench determined that though they classified botanically as fruits, people ate them with meals and not as dessert. As a result, local economies taxed them as vegetables based on the Nix vs. Hedden decision.

No wonder people still fuss over the fruit vs. veggie classification.

Next time you water your tomatoes or pick them for salad or salsa, keep in mind this popular produce’s complicated history.

It started in the New World, established itself in the Old World, returned to the New World with a wonky reputation, and then forced a Supreme Court Decision in 1893 that still stands. Oh, and savvy entrepreneur Joseph Campbell popularized canned condensed tomato soup in 1897.

How many cans do you have in your pantry?

Karen Madorin is a retired teacher, writer, photographer, outdoors lover, and sixth-generation Kansan.