Check out the tomatoes I just scored at my local frutteria. Aren’t they pretty?

The skins are a tiny bit tough on both the wrinkly and the green stripey varieties. But the taste. So sweet and juicy!

Tomatoes are my desert island food, bar none. And not those tomatoes you get in the US that taste like watery cardboard either. Italy may have come late to the tomato game but it has certainly made up for lost time. Today, the country produces around 6.5 million cubic tonnes of tomatoes on 80 000 hectares each year. Tomatoes are a basic component of the Mediterranean Diet. Herewith, a bit of tomato history for y’all.

Native to the Andes, tomatoes were cultivated by the Incas in Peru and the Aztecs in Mexico all the way back to 700 CE. The name comes from the Aztec “xitomatl,” which means “plump thing with a navel.” Aww. Tomatoes spread to Europe after the Spanish colonized the Americas in the 1500s. One story attributes their appearance in Europe to none other than Christopher Columbus himself. Italians called the new arrival pomodoro — golden apple — which implies that the first varieties seen in Italy were yellow. Or maybe not. I’ve read 15 articles on tomato history today and they all say something different. But they do agree on one thing: Europeans were initially pretty suspicious of tomatoes (and eggplants, peppers and potatoes — also recent entries from the Americas); the plants looked suspiciously like deadly nightshade, which is, as its name implies, highly toxic. And in fact tomatoes (and eggplant, peppers and potatoes) are members of the nightshade family. In 1544, the Italian herbalist Pietro Matthioli, classified the tomato plant as poisonous.

This silliness was not at all unique to Europe. North Americans believed that tomatoes were deadly until 1820, when — legend has it — Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson supposedly ate a whole basket on the courthouse steps in Salem, N.J. in front of 2000 people and didn’t die.

Back in Italy, having fewer options than the rich (and tomatoes grew extremely well in the Mediterranean climate), poor people in the south took the plunge first, frying pomodori in garlic and oil. In the north, the tomato was used mostly as an ornamental. Slowly, slowly the tomato caught on. The use of the fruit (yes, despite what the US Supreme Court said in 1893, the tomato is not a vegetable. Glad to know the Supremes were just as ridiculous back then as they are now) to sauce pasta appeared for the first time in the 1790 cookbook L’Apicio moderno by Francesco Leonardi. By the way, don’t even think of telling Italians that Marco Polo introduced pasta from China. They will yell and yell. The use of pasta in Italy was documented well before Polo’s return in 1295.

The huge wave of Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought pasta and tomato sauce to America. Mass canning and a big business of importing tomatoes from the old country began. As a result, the word “tomato” has become synonymous with Italy. And eventually, spaghetti with red sauce became a central part of the American middle class diet. I’ll get into the meatball thing — which Italians do not eat, at least with spaghetti — another time.

One last little tale. Many of the young English aristocrats who ran amuck in Italy during the Grand Tour days came back all affected and dandified. In the mid-eighteenth century, a super fancy men’s hairstyle and the guy wearing it were known as macaroni (after the pasta) and that’s why when Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap, he called it macaroni.

Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy 1942

Finally, here’s something I wish I had known many years earlier than I did (and didn’t learn until I moved to Rome): do not EVER put tomatoes in the refrigerator. They don’t like it.


3 responses to “Pomodori!

  1. Mike Jackson

    The culinary joys of genetic diversity!

  2. Need to grow some in Zurich 🙂

  3. Pingback: Nibbles: Tomatoes, CATIE, Community seed bank, Law

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