The Tomato: Botanists claim it’s a fruit, horticulturalists say it’s a vegetable. Even the U.S. Supreme Court joined the debate in 1893 by ruling the tomato is a vegetable – at least for customs purposes.
Whether you think it’s a fruit or a vegetable, there’s no denying the tomato is almost everywhere you look in the western world – in ketchup, salads, soups, pizzas and countless other places.
But it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, historically, it seems that hardly anyone ate tomatoes until the 1800s.
So just how did this unassuming and mysterious food get to be so popular? And where did it come from in the first place?
The tomato, scientific name Solanum Lycopersicum, is native to South America. The name tomato hints at this geographical place of origin – as the word tomato is derived from the Aztec (Nahuatl) word Tomatl.
Experts currently believe that wild tomatoes probably originated in the Andean areas of Ecuador and Peru in distant history, before being domesticated by people in what is now Mexico.
During the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 1500s, Europeans are thought to have encountered tomatoes for the first time. Eventually, tomatoes are thought to have been introduced into Europe in the mid 1500s by Spanish priests, who brought tomatoes back with them from their travels in the Americas.
At first, Europeans were wary of eating tomatoes. Botanists noticed the similarity of the tomato plant to deadly nightshade and belladonna – both of which are poisonous. As such, Europeans generally feared that tomatoes could be poisonous, but ultimately, tomatoes did start to be eaten in Spain and Italy.
The mixed reception tomatoes first received in Europe was reflected in the variety of names Europeans gave to tomatoes. Italians, for example, dubbed the fruit Pomodoro, which means golden apples. The French may have originally thought tomatoes were a kind of eggplant. As such, tomatoes may have been referred to as eggplants in France.
Ultimately, the French name for eggplant, pomme des mours seems to have perhaps been distorted into pommes d’amour which means love apples. That French name soon spread to England, where the English named tomatoes love apples, and began to suspect – or perhaps fear – the fruit might have aphrodisiac qualities.
The tomato was eventually introduced to the United States of America, where Thomas Jefferson is known to have grown them in 1781. By the close of the twentieth century, the tomato was widely cultivated as a food plant, and had become a key feature of dishes consumed around the world.