Today tomatoes are a staple food that we hardly stop to think about (except for heirloom tomato aficionados trying to find the fruit with the perfect flavor.) But only a few hundred years ago the attitude toward tomatoes in northern Europe, and among northern European settlers in North America, was quite different. They saw tomatoes as exotic ornamentals, or deadly poisons, or aphrodisiacs, or possibly aids in black magic.
This ambivalence is still reflected in the tomato’s scientific name, Lycopersicon esculentum, which translates to “edible wolf peach.” That name was settled on in 1768. Fifteen years earlier Carl Linnaeus, the first botanist to place the tomato in the Latin system of classification, wasn’t so willing to vouch for its edibility; he called it Solanum lycopersicum, “wolf peach of the nightshade family.” Given the known toxicity of many nightshades, this was hardly reassuring.
So how did the tomato get such a bad rap, and how did that change? There are several conflicting stories about that. Here’s some of what historians know and guess:
Tomatoes were first domesticated by Aztecs in the Andes who began selectively breeding the small-fruited wild tomato for heavier production of larger fruits. We don’t know exactly when this process began, but when Spanish explorers first brought tomatoes back to Europe in the early 1500s the plants had been long domesticated and substantially altered by the process.
The English word ‘tomato’ comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word ‘xitomatl.’ But that wasn’t the first name by which the new fruit was known back in Europe. In French the tomato was called the pomme d’amour, ‘apple of love.’
There are several theories about that name. Some say that the tomato was confused with its botanical relative the mandrake, which is described as an aphrodisiac as far back as the Bible. Others say that it may have been a corruption of one of the tomato’s other early written names: the Italian pomo d’oro, ‘golden apple,’ which may suggest that the first imported tomatoes were yellow, or the Spanish pome dei Moro, Moorish apple (which may also be the source of the Italian name.)
In Mediterranean areas the tomato was soon accepted as a food source. But in northern Europe there was much more skepticism.
In England and Germany tomatoes were initially regarded as ornamental but dangerously poisonous. Some people said that their bright red color clearly signaled poisons lurking within. Some were understandably wary since the tomato was closely related to deadly nightshade as well as mandrake (which may or may not have actually had aphrodisiac effects, but was certainly poisonous taken in any significant quantity), and since tomato leaves and stems really were poisonous.
Apparently some aristocrats’ experiments with eating tomato fruit did end badly, earning tomatoes the nickname ‘poison apple,” although K. Annabelle Smith at the Smithsonian notes in her article “Why the Tomato Was Feared in Europe for More Than 200 Years” that the fruit wasn’t to blame in itself; pewter dishes were fashionable, the lead in pewter was highly toxic, the strong acids in tomatoes leached lead from the plates, and it was easier to blame the exotic new fruit than to consider the possible dangers of familiar dishes.
New life was given to the poison scare in the northern United States by the appearance of tomato hornworms, large green caterpillars with prominent horns on their rear ends. An agricultural journal noted in the 1860s that thirty or forty years earlier the hornworms had been considered poisonous in themselves, and that it had been thought that any fruit they might crawl over would become deadly as well, though the editor saw all such stories as antiquated follies.
The Sorcerer’s Tomato
The tomato may also have suffered from scholarly attempts to identify plants discovered in the New World with plants mentioned by ancient authors. Linnaeus, casting around for a Latin name for the tomato, identified it with one of the mystery plants described by the ancient Roman physician Galen. Galen’s lycopersion (the first part of the name is clearly “wolf,” the second rather mysterious, but mis-transliterated in Linnaeus’ time as persicum, ‘peach’) had strong-scented yellow juice and ribbed stalks. Romie Stott’s Atlas Obscura article “When Tomatoes Were Blamed For Witches and Werewolves” suggests that Galen identified tomatoes with wolf peaches because of superstitions concerning witchcraft.
For centuries before Linnaeus’ day belief in, and fear of, witchcraft had been widespread. Witch hunters had looked, among other things, for a mysterious ointment said to give witches the power of flight—and also the power of transforming themselves, or other people, into werewolves. Several of the toxic and hallucinogenic nightshades were listed as likely ingredients in this ointment, and the tomato, as usual, shared in the disgrace of its relatives.
Some people, especially in England, seem to have objected to tomatoes merely because they came from foreign parts and were unfamiliar. English surgeon and naturalist John Gerard called them ‘rank and stinking,” perhaps objecting to the pungent odor of the foliage. King James I’s personal physician noted that they might be useful for cooling hot stomachs in the New World, or even Italy and Spain, but England was already cold enough.
Despite all these warnings, people continued to try eating tomatoes—and those who tried and didn’t get sick generally recommended the experience to others. Thomas Jefferson, politician, president and gardener, raised and ate tomatoes in the 1700s when many still considered them poisonous. In 1820 a New Jersey colonel by the name of Robert Johnson tried to win over skeptics by publicly eating a raw tomato on the steps of the courthouse and then standing there long enough for people to satisfy themselves that he was not going to suddenly drop dead.
By the 1850s tomatoes had become widely popular in the United States, and in the 1890s Joseph Campbell found that tomatoes canned well and began marketing condensed tomato soup. In Europe acceptance of the tomato became much more widespread after the invention of pizza in the 1880s. Scientists didn’t change the wolf peach’s name, but the general public no longer feared eating it.