Header Ads

Tomato History : From the Andes to Europe and America

Tomatoes are today an essential part of European and American cuisine and their usage is seen in many common dishes ranging from salads, soups, tapas, pizzas, pasta sauces and other food dishes. However, they aren't native to Europe and their first usage in Europe was mainly as ornamental plants.

Tomato plant
Tomato plant
As you enjoy your next bite of a delicious tomato topped pizza, spaghetti with tomato sauce or a salad with tomatoes, the intriguing history of the journey of the wild tomatoes from the Andes, and its influence on the European and American cuisine might give you some food for thought.

Origin of the Tomato

The origin of the tomato is said to be the Andes around present-day Peru, Ecuador and the nearby regions including Chile, Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico where they grew wild.

Map of South America showing the Andes
Map of South America showing the Andes
The word 'tomato' comes from the Spanish word 'tomate' which itself comes from the Nahuatl word 'tomatl'. Nahuatl is the Aztec language and tomatoes are known to have been first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas more than 2000 years ago.

The native versions were small, sour, like cherry tomatoes, belonging to the species called Lycopersicon esculentum and were used by the Aztecs and other peoples in Mesoamerica, predominately around present-day Mexico, in their cooking.

Introduction of the Tomato to Europe

The introduction of the tomato to Europe followed after the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. It is not exactly known if Christopher Columbus introduced the tomato to Europe after his expeditions—or the Spanish Conquistadors, after Hernán Cortés captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521—or shorty after Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire and established the city of Lima in 1535.

Voyages of Christopher Columbus
Voyages of Christopher Columbus
The Spanish brought the tomato to Europe and also introduced it to their colonies including the Philippines from where it spread to other parts of southeast Asia and then the entire Asian continent.

Early European Reference to the Tomato

The early references to the tomato can be found in the writings of the 16th century botanists and naturalists but they revel very little about its prior history besides just noting its introduction to Europe. Though later writings identify the source of the tomatoes as Central or South America, its precise origin, the identity of the person who took them to Europe, and its exact date of arrival are still matters of speculation.

Woodblock for a printing of Discorsi by Pietro Mattioli circa 1561
Woodblock for a printing of Discorsi by Pietro Mattioli circa 1561
The earliest European reference to the tomato can be found in the work of Pietro Andrea Mattioli, a physician and botanist from Sienna, Italy. Dr. Mattioli described 100 new plants in his Discorsi (Commentaries) on the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, which first appeared in 1544. In the updated book published circa 1554 with additional notes he refers to tomatoes as pomi d'oro.

Another reference to the tomato can be found in Costanzo Felici's notes to his friend during the period 1569-1572, where he writes about the new plants introduced to Europe. Costanzo Felici, who was a physician and naturalist notes that tomatoes are intense and red yellow and adds that 'al mio gusto è più presto bello che buono' implying 'to my taste better to look at than to eat'.

The first written reference to the cultivation of the tomato in Spain is made by a priest Gregorio de los Ríos, in his work on gardening titled Agricultura de jardines in 1592, referring to tomatoes as pomates and noting that they are good for sauces.

Tomato as an Ornamental Plant and Its Various Names

Tomatoes grew easily in the Mediterranean climates of Spain and Italy but were grown mainly as ornamental plants early on in Europe. Initially, people were suspicious and thought tomatoes were poisonous or aphrodisiac, stimulating sexual desires and hence they were rarely used in cooking.

Yellow pear-shaped tomatoes by Sylwia Ufnalska
Yellow pear-shaped tomatoes by Sylwia Ufnalska
The Italians called the tomato 'pomodoro' combining the words pomo and d'oro meaning 'apple of gold' due to their bright yellow color. The French called them 'pomme d’amour' meaning 'love apple' and the Germans are known to have referred to them as 'paradeisapfel' meaning 'apple of paradise' in an old German dialect.

Influence of the Tomato on European Cuisine

Tomatoes at first were mainly grown as ornamental plants and used as tabletop decoration. Gradually they started being used in the Spanish and Italian cuisines as people got past their initial fear of the foreign fruit and started adapting to its taste.

Though published recipes with tomatoes don't exist in the 16th century, Spanish Baroque painter Bartolomé Murillo’s work 'La cocina de los ángeles' (The kitchen of the angels) painted in 1646 for the Franciscan Convent in Seville, depicts the preparation of a dish using tomatoes and squash implying that tomatoes were used in cooking during the early 17th century.

Italian cuisine

The first recipe for tomato salsa appears in late 17th century in Antonio Latini's cookbook 'Lo scalco alla moderna' (The Modern Steward), (Naples, vol. I 1692, vol. II 1694). Antonio Latini was a steward to Don Stefano Carillo y Salcedo, first minister to the Spanish viceroy of Naples.

Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola
Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola
Antonio Latini describes the use of tomatoes in his recipe called 'Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola' (Tomato sauce, Spanish style) in which roasted tomatoes are minced and added to finely chopped onions and chilies and combined with salt, oil and vinegar.

During the 18th century, tomatoes were used in more recipes, specially in the southern part of Italy, as evident from Vincenzo Corrado's recipe book published in 1773 in Naples. Printed recipes for pasta with tomatoes first appeared in Ippolito Cavalcanti's book 'Cucina teorico-pratica' (Theory and Practice of Cooking) in 1837 and Cucina casareccia (Home-style Cooking) in 1839.

Pellegrino Artusi cookbook published in 1891, two decades after the unification of Italy, revels the popularity of the tomato in the Italian cuisine. Artusi was the first to include recipes from all the different regions of Italy in a single cookbook titled 'La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bane' ('The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well').

Pellegrino Artusi cookbook
Pellegrino Artusi cookbook
In the description of the recipe for the tomato sauce, Artusi notes that in a town in Romagna, an old priest was affectionately nicknamed Don Pomodoro, as he would stick his nose and always be present in the affairs of other people, referring to the presence of tomato in every possible combination of Italian food during his period.

San Marzano tomatoes used in Neapolitan Pizza
San Marzano tomatoes used in Neapolitan Pizza
As tomatoes became an important part of the Italian cuisine, several unique varieties of tomatoes were developed for specific uses such as dried tomatoes, sauce tomatoes, pizza tomatoes and long shelf-life tomatoes.

Spanish cuisine

Maria Rosa Calvillo de Teruel's book titled 'Libro de apuntaciones de guisos y dulces' (Book of notes on stews and sweets) published circa 1740 includes over a dozen recipes using tomatoes. The book is also believed to be the first recipe book written by a woman in Spain and the recipes are written for the middle-class families of her time.

In 1745, Juan Altamiras a Franciscan friar from Aragon, published his recipe notebook 'Nuevo arte de cocina' (The New Art of Cooking) which also contains a variety of recipes using tomatoes with meat, poultry, fish, eggs and vegetables.

Gazpacho soup
Gazpacho soup
From both these cookbooks it is evident that the tomato had become part of the Spanish cuisine by mid-18th century. Later on the popular Andalusian gazpacho soup which originally used bread, olive oil, water, vinegar and garlic, incorporated the tomatoes in the recipe to create the modern version of the soup.

Other European countries and beyond

In the latter half of the 18th century tomato based recipes started spreading to other countries across Europe, where they were used in soups, sauces, stews and as a garnish.

Tomatoes are known to have been grown in England at the end of the 16th century but their introduction to the British cuisine took a while, as their culinary influence is seen mostly during the 18th century.

Salade niçoise
Salade niçoise
In France, the cuisine of Provence is considered to be an early adopter of the tomato. The famous classic dishes of southern France, such as bouillabaisse (seafood stew), ratatouille (vegetable stew), and salade niçoise (salad ) use tomato as an important ingredient.

After being established in the British cuisine, tomato was introduced to cultivation in parts of the Middle East around the end of the 18th century through the British consul in Aleppo.

Introduction of the Tomato to North America

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in British North America is from 1710, when English herbalist William Salmon, who is known to have traveled to North America and the Caribbean, reported seeing them in what is today South Carolina in his major work titled Botanologia.

A possible explanation to William Salmon's observation, is the influence of Florida or the Caribbean which were then Spanish colonies, and tomatoes may have been introduced there via the colonies, in the 17th century. Another possibility is that the British colonists, may have introduced them in the area which is today the Carolinas.

Monticello and Garden by Jane Peticolas 1825
Monticello and Garden by Jane Peticolas 1825
Thomas Jefferson is also known to have exported tomato seeds from France during the early 1780s, based on his writing in 1781, 'Notes on the State of Virginia' where he notes that 'The gardens yield musk-melons, water-melons, tomatos, okra, pomegranates, figs, and the esculent plants of Europe'. His garden book also records the planting of tomatoes in the Monticello vegetable garden from 1809 until 1824, a period during which Jefferson maintained detailed garden records.

Jefferson is known to have credited John de Sequeyra, for introducing the tomato as a food plant to Virginia in the mid-18th century. John de Sequeyra was a doctor born into a Spanish-Portuguese family and moved to Williamsburg, Virginia in 1745.

Transformation from Wild to Sweeter Taste

Alexander W. Livingston played an important role in improving the taste of the tomato. His work transformed the tomato from a small sour fruit to a large size with a sweeter taste. Livingston spent two decades breeding his 'Paragon' tomato, which he succeeded in doing so in 1870.

Red tomatoes
Red tomatoes
Alexander W. Livingston's work involved a careful process of selecting seeds from tomato plants exhibiting specific characteristics that he was interested in. He went on to develop different other varieties of tomatoes before his death in 1898. His Livingston Seed Company continued the work, and in all, A. W. Livingston and his company introduced thirty-five varieties of tomatoes.

Livingston's work helped to make tomatoes more popular with the American cuisine.

Supreme Court decides the Fruit versus Vegetable debate

Botanically, a tomato is a fruit but in the USA, it is considered a 'culinary vegetable' and commonly served as part of a salad or main course of a meal, rather than at dessert.

Tomato is a fruit or vegetable based on context
Tomato is a fruit or vegetable based on context
The first debate about the classification of tomato as a vegetable or fruit occurred as a result of the Tariff Act of 1883, when Congress levied a ten percent duty on imported vegetables.

In 1886, John Nix imported tomatoes into New York from the West Indies, but paid the duty under protest, stating that tomatoes were a fruit rather than a vegetable. He appealed to the courts in New York against the tax collector Hedden, but after years of going through courts and appeal courts, the case was taken up by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court settled the Nix v. Hedden case in 1893, by declaring that the tomato is a vegetable, based on the popular definition that classifies vegetables by use, that they are generally served with dinner and not dessert.

Influence of the Tomato on American Cuisine

Though tomatoes were eaten by a very few during the period of Jefferson and mostly used by the immigrants from the Spanish colonies, its wider use in the American cuisine happened after the mid-19th century, influenced by the immigrants, particularly from southern parts of Italy, Spain and France where it was well established.

Creole jambalaya which uses tomatoes
Creole jambalaya which uses tomatoes
Along with fresh tomatoes, canned tomato products like ketchup and tomato soup also became popular during the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century.

Two of America's well known canning companies were founded in 1869, H.J. Heinz in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania and Anderson & Campbell in Camden, New Jersey which later became known as the Joseph Campbell & Company after Campbell bought out his partner Anderson in 1876. Canned tomato products and sauces also made the tomato more readily available to the people.


References

Lo scalco alla moderna by Antonio Latini

Agricultura de jardines by Gregorio de los Ríos

Italian Cook Book by Pellegrino Artusi

Notes on the state of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (Library of Congress)

New Art of Cookery: A Spanish Friar's Kitchen Notebook by Juan Altamiras by Vicky Hayward

No comments