Tomatoes: History, Origin, Facts... or fiction!?

What is a tomato? You probably think it's a vegetable, right? As do most people. However, tomatoes are in fact not a vegetable, but rather, a fruit. In 1883 the United States Congress passed a tariff act requiring a 10% tax on imported vegetables; a response to the growing international trade at time.

A tomato importer, John Nix, decided to challenge the law after scrutinizing the Tariff Act. His case relied on the fact that tomatoes were a fruit and not vegetable, therefore, it should not be subjected to the Tariff Act. Nix's objections brought the case to the Supreme Court in 1893. Although Nix had a solid case, the Supreme Court rejected the botanical facts and continued to refer to tomatoes as a vegetable.

Plant family

Tomatoes belong to the genus Lycopersicon, while potatoes belong to the genus Solanum; Both of which belongs to the same "flowering plant family" solanaceae. The similarities in leaves and flowers justifies this taxonomic grouping.

The UK - Introduction of the tomato

When the tomato plant was first introduced into the UK, some areas were not willing to consume the fruit because they were considered poisonous. Other plants that were poisonous, and in the same family as the tomato, such as the henbane, mandrake and the deadly nightshade were reasons to be concerned.

The deadly nightshade (Atropus belladonna), in particular, resembled the tomato plant the most, and was used as a hallucinogenic drug, as well as for cosmetic purposes in various parts of Europe. In Latin, the name "belladonna"; literally means "beautiful woman." The women in medieval courts would apply drop of deadly nightshade extract to their eyes, dilating their pupils, a fashionable statement at the time.

When the deadly nightshade was taken for it's hallucinogenic properties, the consumer would experience visuals and a feeling of flying or weightlessness. German folklore suggests it was also used in witchcraft to evoke werewolves, a practice know as lycanthropy. The common name for tomatoes in Germany translates to "Wolf peach," which was simply another reason for Europeans to avoid the plant.

North America - Introduction of the tomato

Tomato plants were transported by colonists from Britain to North America. The plants were most valued for removing pustule (Pimples, Blisters - Pus filled, inflamed skin). The inventor of peanut butter, George Washington Carver, strongly urged his poor Alabama neighbors to consume tomatoes because of their unhealthy diet. However, he had little success convincing them that the plants was edible.

Early efforts by merchants to sell tomatoes were not very successful. It is said that the fruit was brought to the liberal hamlet of Salem, Mass. in 1802 by a painter who also found it difficult persuading people to try the fruit. New Orleans cuisine was reported to have used tomatoes by 1812, however, doubts about the fruit lingered in some areas.

It's thought that doubts about the plant's edibility was laid to rest, when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson announced that he will consume a bushel of tomatoes in front of the Boston courthouse at noon on September 26, 1820. Thousands of spectators turned out to watch the man commit suicide (At least, so they thought) by consuming the poisonous fruit. It is said that spectators were shocked when they realized the Colonel will survive after consuming numerous tomatoes. This story is from an old farm journal and may not be very reliable, however, it's quite entertaining.

Tomato popularity on the rise

Throughout the western world, tomatoes began to grow in popularity. In the 1820s, several cookbooks included recipes which required or called for tomatoes. Tomatoes were sold by the dozens in Boston's Quincy Market in 1835. In Thomas Bridgeman seed catalogue, 4 varieties of tomatoes were listed: Cherry, Pear, Large Yellow and Large Squash.

Bruist, a seed merchant commented on the tomato in 1858 - "In taking retrospect of the last eighteen years, there is no vegetable on the catalogue that has obtained such popularity in so short a period as the one now under consideration. In 1828-29, it was almost detested; in ten years almost every variety of pill and panacea was extract of tomato. It now occupies as great a surface of ground as cabbage, and is cultivated the length and breadth of the country." - www.heirloomseeds.com

That year, Bruits had eight cultivatars listed in his catalogue. A few years later, in 1863, a popular seed catalogue had 23 cultivars listed. One of the listed cultivars was Trophy, the first modern-looking, large, red, smooth-skinned variety which was sold for $5.00 for a packet of 20 seeds.

Large scale breeding for desirable traits became common in the 1870s in both the US and UK. In fact, by the 1880s several hundred cultivars had been named and it was clear that tomato had grown on the western culture. According to a study conducted at Michigan Agricultural College in the late 1880s, 171 of the named cultivars represented only 61 truly unique varieties, many of which were only marginally different.

Heirloom varieties

Although Central American is thought to be the center of domestication, throughout Europe and later in North America, further domestication occurred on a more intense level. Eastern Europe appeared to produce large numbers of high quality varieties. Tomatoes are self-pollinating plants which tend to become genetically homozygous after many generations. Tomatoes will rarely cross breed and usually produce plants will similar characteristics as the parents.

Because of tomatoes natural breeding process, early cultivars did not change much and were kept in a family or community for a long time, hence the name heirlooms. There are cultivars that dates back to over one hundred years that are still produced today. Most heirloom varieties are different in color, size and shape. Some varieties are black, red with black shoulders, dark purple, rainbow and green. In terms of size, some are the size of a cherry to larger varieties weighing over 2 lb.

Heirlooms - a story

Some heirloom varieties have interesting histories as well; at least I think so. Lets talk about the story of a heirloom name Mortgage Lifter. A radiator repair shop owner, Charlie, experienced hard times, as did much of the nation through the Great Depression. Because of financial reasons, most people abandoned their cars and Ol Charlie's business too a hard hit. He decided to use his four largest fruit producing tomato plants to cross breed repeatedly with each other to create a plant that produced two pounds of fruits.

Claming that his plants could feed a family of six, Charlie peddled the crops for a dollar per plant. Within four years, Charlie generated enough money to pay off the $4,000 dollars mortgage on his home, which led to the heirloom name "Mortgage Lifter."

Heirlooms - names & origins

In general, the names of heirloom varieties links directly to their history. For example, the Baptiste family in Remis, Fance cultivated the First Pick variety. Picardy's history also dates back to France (1890). Besser arrived from the Freiburg section of Germany, while Schellenburg's Favorite came from the Schellenburg family near Manheim, Germany.

Elbe was cultivated in 1889 near the Elbe River in Germany. Since the 1870s, the Amish in Pennsylvania cultivated the Amish Paste variety. Brandywine was also cultivated by Amish farmers near Brandywine Creek in Chester County Pennsylvania in 1885. The hills of Virginia is thought to be the origin of the Hillbilly variety. Old Virginia was cultivated in Virginia as well in the early 1900s. In 1953 Campbell Soup Co., introduced the Ace variety which is still popular for canning. On Edgar Allan Poe's estate, a cultivar found growing there bears his mother's maiden name, Hopkins.

Please bear in mind that these heirloom stories may be true or false, in part or whole, and may be inaccurate or exaggerated.

Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life
Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life by Nora T. Gedgaudas

About The Author

Kirk Gordon

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