The Tomato Had To Go Abroad To Make Good

0ne of the strangest things about the history of the tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) is the fact that, although it is of American origin, it was unknown as food in this country until long after it was commonly eaten in Europe. Until hardly more than a hundred years ago it was generally thought to be poisonous in the United States. Long before it was considered here as fit to eat, it was grown only as an ornamental garden plant, sometimes called "love apple."

The mistaken idea that tomatoes were poisonous probably arose because the plant belongs to the Nightshade family, of which some species are truly poisonous. The strong, unpleasant odor of the leaves and stems also contributed to the idea that the fruits were unfit for food.

Our word "tomato" is but a slight modification of tomati, the word used by the Indians of Mexico, who have grown the plant for food since prehistoric times. Other names reported by early European explorers were tomatl, tumatle, and tomatas, probably variants of Indian words.

In Their Native Andes, Tomatoes Grow Wild

Cultivated tomatoes apparently originated as wild forms in the Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia area of the Andes. Moderate altitudes in that mountainous land abound today in a wide range of forms of tomato, both wild and cultivated. The cultivated tomato is very tender to cold and also rather intolerant of extremely hot or dry weather, a characteristic reflecting the nature of the climate in which it originated.

Presumably the cultivated species of tomato was carried from the slopes of the Andes northward into Central America and Mexico in the same way as maize, by a prehistoric migration of Indians. Since few primitive forms of tomato are found in Central America and Mexico compared with the number in South America, this probably occurred in relatively recent times-perhaps in the last two thousand years.

Because of the highly perishable nature of the fruit, it seems likely that the tomato was among the last of the native American species to be adopted as a cultivated food plant by the Indians and that it remained of little importance until after the arrival of the white man. Lack of evidence of its use by North American Indians further suggests its rather late movement from South America.

For more than 200 years after 1554, when the first known record of the tomato was written, it was being gradually carried over the globe. European writers mentioned seeing it in far places, but not in what is now the United States.

Italians first grew the tomato about 1550 and apparently were the first Europeans to eat it. About 25 years later it was grown in English, Spanish, and mid-European gardens as a curiosity, with little or no interest in it then as food. The French gave it the name pomme d'amour; hence the English and early American term "love apple."

One early Italian writer called the tomato poma Peruviana, suggesting that it was introduced from Peru. Another called it poma d'oro, or "gold apple," indicating that the earliest introductions were yellow-fruited. By the middle of the 18th century the tomato was grown for food extensively in Italy and to some extent in many European countries.

Thomas Jefferson Grew Tomatoes

Not until after the Declaration of Independence do we find any record of the tomato as being grown by white men in this country. Thomas Jefferson, a remarkably progressive Virginia farmer as well as a statesman, grew it in 1781. It was supposedly introduced to Philadelphia by a French refugee from Santo Domingo in 1789 and to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1802 by an Italian painter.

Tomatoes were used as food in New Orleans as early as 1812, doubtless through French influence; but it was another 20 to 25 years before they were grown for food in the northeastern part of the country. Many persons now living recall being told that tomatoes were poisonous.

The various shapes and colors of tomatoes known today in the United States were found in America by the earliest explorers. Plant breeders have improved the size and smoothness of the fruit and the productivity of the plants, but have introduced nothing basically new in form or color.

As a food of world-wide importance, the tomato is about the newest. It has been cultivated and bred so assiduously in Europe that European varieties are now contributing important characters to the improvement of the crop in the United States. Italy has long been famous for its excellent tomato paste, made from small, oblong, rich, red tomatoes; and spaghetti is hardly spaghetti without tomato sauce.

After having made good abroad, the tomato has attained great importance in its native hemisphere. Today, in the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of acres yield millions of tons of tomatoes.