A Brief History of Food: The Tomato
Updated: Jun 16
The tomato is the edible, often red fruit/berry of the nightshade Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The species originated in the South American Andes and its use as a food began in Mexico, spreading throughout the world following the Spanish colonisation of the Americas.
Aztecs and other peoples in Mesoamerica used the fruit in their cooking. The exact date of domestication is unknown: by 500 BC, it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico and probably other areas. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521, although Christopher Columbus, a Genoese working for the Spanish monarchy, may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in an herbal written in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who suggested that a new type of eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden colour when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant - that is, cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. It was not until ten years later, however, that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or "golden apple".
Despite arriving in Europe shortly after their discovery in the New World, it took some time for the tomato to be considered edible. Being a member of the nightshade family rumours persisted that tomatoes were poisonous. It took until the mid-19th century (1839) for the first pasta recipe with tomatoes to be documented. Shortly thereafter tomato eating became all the rage, especially in the south of Italy, and the rest is delicious history.