Not Your Garden Variety Tomato: Why Europeans Believed This Fruit Would Kill You

Tomatoes. Google Images

In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors returned to Spain with a most unusual souvenir of their conquest of the Americas: a small, yellow, cherry-sized fruit, which was a favorite foodstuff with the indigenous people. The fruit, known to the Aztecs as the tomatl, was reputedly discovered in 1521 by Hernando Cortes after the capture of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, (now Mexico city). The tomatl or tomato as it became know had been popular with the locals since around 700 AD. Cortes brought some of the seeds of the fruit with him back to Spain, and so Europe’s love affair with the tomato began.

However, the ascent of this foreign fruit was by no means immediate as many people regarded the tomato with suspicion. Its acceptance by the cooks of Europe was a gradual thing, dogged by misconceptions and mishaps. While the Italians began to experiment with the tomato in cuisine as early as 1544, by 1700, the British and Americans still regarded the fruit as poisonous. So why were people so fearful of the tomato? And what happened to change their mind about it?

First drawing of tomato in Europe by Pietro Andrea Mattioli. Wikimedia Commons

Guilty by Association

The bright, shiny fruit of the tomato immediately reminded many Europeans of certain poisonous plants they were familiar with, particularly Deadly Nightshade. This observation was an astute one,  for the tomato and nightshade plant were both members of the same family: the Solanaceae. Derived from the Latin name Solanum, for nightshade, the Solanaceae is a family of flowering plants, which has edible and inedible members. The consumable, besides the tomato, include the potato, chili peppers, and aubergines or eggplant. However, besides nightshade, other deadly members of the family included Mandrake and wolfsbane.

The aubergine was already familiar to southern Europeans as an edible member of the family. However, nightshade and Mandrake were known to be either hallucinogenic or poisonous. The similarities between the tomato’s fruit and nightshade berries immediately made the tomato suspect. In 1544, the Italian herbalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli was the first to formally classified the tomato as a Solanae, likening it to a cross between Mandrake and Deadly Nightshade. This comparison immediately put the tomato under a shadow, made worse by the fact that leaves; stem and roots of the plant are indeed poisonous.

This reputation was made worse by John Gerard, an English Barber surgeon who was one of the earliest cultivators of the tomato plant in England. In 1597, Gerard published one of the earliest discussions on the tomato in his Herball. His account drew upon earlier, continental accounts of the fruit, which Gerard attempted to pass off as based own experience. Gerard’s assessment of the tomato was most unfavorable. He branded ‘the whole plant’ to be ‘of ranke and stinking savor.” Worse yet, based on its association with deadly nightshade, Gerard branded the whole plant, not just the leaves and stalk, as toxic.

Deadly Nightshade Berry. Google Images.

The In 1692, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort created a new classification amongst the Solanae, especially for the tomato. De Tournefort referred to the plant as Lycopersicon or wolf peach. De Tournefort’s new classification combined the innocent peach-like shape of the fruit with its deadly reputation. In German folk belief, werewolves could be summoned using members of the Solanaceae family such as nightshade. So, from the outset, the tomato’s reputation was tainted by its resemblance to certain of its European relatives. It became guilty by association.

This reputation was not aided by the fact that, in northern Europe at least, eating tomatoes resulted in some very unfortunate experiences.