Bit of Tomato History

According to The Oxford Companion to Food, the tomato, or Solanum lycopersicum, the tomato originated in north western South America, but not in its present form of course. It is thought that the original tomato was L. cerasiforme, or perhaps the “currant tomato,” which bears a long spray of tiny red fruits which split on the plant. L. cerasiforme has the greatest genetic similarity, however.

The edible descendant of our tomato ancestor made it’s way up to Mexico and was eventually domesticated/cultivated by the Aztec. There is no evidence that the wild variety of tomato was eaten in their lands of origin. All tomatoes consumed in South America were reintroduced after the Spanish Conquest.

There was a bit of a misunderstanding on the Spandiards’ part regarding the name of the tomato. The Aztecs called the tomato “xitomatl,” which meant “plump fruit. The tomatillo, or husk tomato, was “miltomatl.” The Spaniards didn’t recognize the importance of the prefixes, however, and just called it “tomatl.” That then turned into “tomate.”

The tomato first reached Europe in the 1500s and it is in the mid-1500s that evidence of their existence in Europe can be traced back. An Italian herbalist used “mala aurea” (golden apples) to refer to what must have been tomtatoes in 1544. The same herbalist mentioned a red variety 10 years later. The first illustration was provided by Dutch herbalist Dodoens in 1554. After around 1550, the tomato became much more widespread in terms of illustrations and mentions. It was not until around 1692 that the first tomato recipe was printed in Spain.

The tomato gained fame in France at a slower rate, and even slower than that in Britain, where they remained suspicious of the tomato (and it’s potentially poisonous nature) until the end of the 19th century. By that time the cultivation, canning and use of tomatoes was happening on a large scale in Italy and the United States.

Now, the tomato is one of the most widely grown and used fruits both as a processed product and fresh. Tomato sauce, tomato paste, ketchup, stewed tomatoes and various other products have been produced using tomatoes. Ketchup is probably one of the most famous, having really taken off in the 1830’s. Though used all over the world, it has become America’s “national condiment.”