Tantalizing Tomato’s Culinary History Through the Ages

Key Takeaways

  • The tomato has ancient Mesoamerican roots, with evidence of its cultivation and use by indigenous populations centuries before its introduction to Europe.
  • The tomato’s journey to Europe was marked by initial hesitation and misconceptions, but it eventually found its way into the cuisines of Italy and other Mediterranean regions.
  • The American South quickly embraced the tomato, which became an integral part of the region’s culinary traditions, even before it gained popularity in other parts of the United States.
  • The Great Tomato Debate and the Nix v. Hedden Supreme Court case cemented the tomato’s place in American cuisine, despite its botanical classification as a fruit.
  • The tomato’s culinary history is also defined by the evolution of cultivation techniques and the preservation of heirloom and heritage tomato varieties, which showcase its rich diversity and historical significance.

Tantalizing Tomato’s Culinary History Through the Ages

Did you know Americans eat about one billion pounds of tomatoes each year?1 Its story goes from Mesoamerica to the world’s kitchens. The tomato had to overcome fear and doubts to be loved, especially in the Southern U.S. It has become a key part of the region’s food.1

In the 16th century, Spanish explorers brought tomatoes to Europe, but people were scared to eat them.2 Yet, the American South welcomed tomatoes early. They were eating them long before others did.1

Then came the 1893 Tomato v. Webster’s Supreme Court case. It decided tomatoes were legally vegetables, not fruits, for taxes.1

The tomato has influenced cooking around the globe, from Italy to Asia. It’s not just the taste. The ways we grow and keep tomatoes have also changed. This has helped keep a great number of tomato kinds alive. People continue to love tomatoes for their many tastes and historical value.

Ancient Origins of the Tomato

Tomato’s Mesoamerican Roots

The tomato started in Mesoamerica, home to indigenous people.3 Around 700 AD, people in Peru and Mexico began farming tomatoes.3 The Aztecs and Incas liked using tomatoes in their food, starting this tradition.4

Indigenous Cultivation and Use

The Aztecs had many types of tomatoes in their markets by then.4 Tomatoes grew wild in South and Central America. People there started farming them perhaps as early as 7000 BCE.4 They knew tomatoes were great for cooking and that made them spread worldwide.

Cultivation Timeline Tomato Varieties
Tomatoes were first cultivated by ancient Mesoamerican civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayans in modern-day Mexico, dating back to around 700 AD.3 By the time of the Aztecs, a vast variety of tomatoes were available in the markets in Mexico City.4
The tomato is native to the western half of South and Central America and could have been cultivated as far back as 7000 BCE.4 Different tomato varieties have gained popularity, such as beefsteak tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes, each suited for specific culinary uses.3

Spanish Explorers and the Introduction to Europe

In the 16th century, Spanish explorers came back from the Americas. They brought the tomato with them, showing it to Europe.5 Spain was the first in Europe to see the tomato. But, many thought the fruit was dangerous because it comes from the nightshade family.5

Arrival of Tomatoes in Spain

Spanish explorers brought tomatoes to southern Europe in the 16th century from Mexico.5 Its arrival began the use of tomatoes in many different foods around the world. Soon, it was a key part of local dishes everywhere.

Initial Hesitation and Misconceptions

In the 18th century, people feared tomatoes in Europe. They were even known as the “poison apple” because of wrong ideas.5 It was found that the tomato’s acid and pewter plates caused poison in rich people, leading to death.5 For a while, tomatoes were used as decorations. But, it changed in the late 1800s when they became safe to eat.5

At first, many doubted the tomato. But its introduction to Europe made it a key taste around the world. From Italian pasta dishes to the lively meals of Spain and the Mediterranean, the tomato became an essential flavor.

introduction of tomatoes in europe

Embracing the Tomato in the American South

The American South welcomed the tomato quickly.6 It arrived in the 1600s, thanks to Spanish settlers or Africans from the Caribbean.6 The warm weather and rich soil made the South perfect for growing tomatoes. This led to tomatoes becoming a key part of Southern dishes.

Early Adoption in Southern Cuisine

The tomato was accepted in Southern cooking right away.7 A typical Southern garden has about 20 tomato plants. Popular types include Cherokee Purple and Super Sweet 100 Cherry Tomato.7 These tomatoes are used in many traditional dishes, such as fried green tomatoes and stews.

Influence of Enslaved Africans and Gullah Geechee Culture

Enslaved Africans and the Gullah Geechee people played a big part in introducing the tomato. It quickly became a vital part of their cuisine. The Gullah Geechee community still uses tomatoes in their cooking in unique ways, keeping their food traditions alive.

The tomato fits so well into Southern dishes, thanks to African and Gullah Geechee influences. It’s a key part of the region’s food culture. From old favorites to new dishes, the tomato remains essential in Southern food.

The Great Tomato Debate: Fruit or Vegetable?

For a long time, people in the United States have debated whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.8 Scientifically, it is a fruit because it grows from the flower of a plant and has seeds.8 Yet, many common vegetables also have seeds, like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and squash. But they are not called fruits because of a different rule.8

The Nix v. Hedden Supreme Court Case

In 1893, the Supreme Court looked at this issue in the case of Nix v. Hedden. They decided that, even though a tomato is technically a fruit, it should be considered a vegetable in the law.9 This was because people use and think of tomatoes more as vegetables.9

Implications for Southern Tomato Growers

The ruling in Nix v. Hedden was very important for tomato farmers in the South. They were selling their tomatoes up North but had to pay extra due to tariffs on vegetable imports.9 Calling tomatoes a vegetable for legal reasons helped these farmers. It meant they could sell their tomatoes without extra taxes.9

Even today, the Nix v. Hedden case still matters. It’s been quoted in other court cases, and in 2005, New Jersey made the tomato its official state vegetable because of it.9