Terrifying Tomatoes! Europeans Were Afraid of Newly Introduced ‘Poisonous Apples’
Everyone has a friend who hates tomatoes. But did you know that this fear or hatred of tomatoes is nothing new? Used in pizza, pasta and even gazpacho, the ubiquitous tomato is associated with Italy and Mediterranean cooking. But when tomatoes first arrived in Europe in the 16th century, they were the cause of fear and trepidation.
Tomatoes originated in the South American Andes, where they existed as a small wild plant. At the time they looked little like the ones we know and love today, being closer to a cherry tomato, yellowish in color and far less sweet.
Historians are not sure exactly when tomatoes reached Europe. Having plundered South America, Spain’s conquistadors carefully recorded the amount of gold and silver that reached Seville, but there is no mention of tomato seeds. Historians believe they arrived around the time of Hernan Cortes. The name came from the Aztec prefix tomatl, meaning “round fruit.”
When tomatoes first reached Europe, they were seen as exotic ornamental plants. They were also associated with deadly nightshade, thanks in part to the Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who labelled it as “golden apple” in the first written record of the tomato from 1544. This generated biblical associations for the tomato as a dangerous source of temptation, which remained for several decades.
Still life with onions and tomatoes by Catherine M. Wood. (Public domain)
It was only in the 1600s that Europeans started eating tomatoes, and that was in Spain’s Andalucia, where they were cooked Aztec-style with oil and chilies. Italians were not impressed. Unsure of which part to eat, they remained unpopular and uneaten in Italy, according to William Alexander in the aptly titled Unhealthy, Smelly, and Strange: Why Italians Avoided Tomatoes for Centuries.
Tomatoes gained a reputation in the 1700s as a poisonous fruit, so much that they were nicknamed poisoned apples. Well-to-do Europeans were in the habit of eating off pewter dishes, made with a high concentration of lead. “Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning,” explains Smithsonian Magazine.
When they were first eaten in Italy, it was only by the most adventurous and the earliest recipe for tomato sauce was published as late as 1694. According How We Fell in Love with Italian Food, the tomato was ideal for the poor because it could easily be preserved and stored. By the mid 18th century it was being used extensively as food and the 19th century saw it added to pasta and even Spanish gazpacho, before conquering the rest of the world.
Top image: Europeans were terrified of tomatoes when they were first introduced. Source: humanissa_rt / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard