The tomato as it is known today has changed a lot since it was first discovered by humans. Native to South America, the tomato was originally thought to be poisonous. Today tomatoes are found all over the globe, used frequently in the cuisine of many different cultures.
In 1519, the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes found the Aztec civilization in South America, and discovered tomatoes being grown in the emperor’s garden (his name was Montezuma). He returned to Europe with seeds where the tomato was first grown as a plant to be looked at. Europeans first guessed that the plant was poisonous. The tomato is a member of the lethal nightshade family of plants, and its leaves are harmful for the nervous system.
As early as the 1550s, the Spanish began eating tomatoes, cultivating them and distributing them to colonies. In the late 1500s, the tomato was introduced to Italy and it was eaten by many citizens. In the 1590s tomatoes were first grown in England. Due to the writings of the influential doctor John Gerard, however, many English citizens believed it was poisonous. It wasn’t until the mid 1700s that tomatoes were commonly consumed in Great Britain.
The tomato was first encountered in North America in 1710 by the herbalist William Salmon. He found it in what is today South Carolina, and its cultivation gradually spread across the United States, with California and Florida becoming major producers. In the first half of the nineteenth century tomatoes were introduced to the Middle East by British consulate John Barker.
Tomatoes are used as a food mostly in Italian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. They are classified by nutritionists as vegetables, though they are actually berries which are a type of fruit. Most often, tomatoes are grown until they’ve reached their full size and are ripe then used in any number of dishes. Other serving possibilities include breading or frying unripe tomatoes to be used in salsas. Due to their high acidity, tomatoes are easy to preserve in a variety of methods. They can be preserved by being pickled or dried in the sun. Tomatoes also can be stored in cans or jars (or refrigerators for a few weeks).
There is an extremely wide variety of tomato breeds, with different types preferred for different applications. For example, plum tomatoes are used for making tomato pastes because they are bred with higher solid contents. Cherry tomatoes are small tomatoes that are often used as toppings for salads, while beefsteak tomatoes are commonly used in sandwiches because of their large size and thin skins. One breed of tomatoes that are rapidly increasing in popularity are heirloom tomatoes; this is a breed that sacrifices some of its disease and pest resistance for a superior flavor.
Tomatoes are heralded for the great health benefits they provide. They contain lycopene (a very powerful antioxidant) as well as many vitamins. Eating tomatoes has been linked with a reduced risk of breast cancer, head or neck cancers, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers’. Much research is being done to determine further health advantages of tomatoes, including the possibility that it helps prevent prostate cancer.
The tomato is a fruit that is considered a vegetable, with a rich and interesting history. Every day more and more varieties are being bred and cultivated as growers search for their perfect breed; there is much more to tomatoes than meets the eye.
For additional resources on tomato history, refer to the following websites:
- Tomato Genetics Resource Center
- Growing Home Garden Tomatoes
- Tomato Varieties
- Tomato Diseases and Disorders
- Canning Tomatoes and Tomato Products
- Common Tomato Problems
- Tomato Health Benefits
- Tomato Recipes