They’re also the subject of a small mountain of folklore. And like all folklore, some of it’s true, and some isn’t.
Andrew F. Smith sets the record straight in this 200-page volume on the “Early History, Culture and Cookery” of The Tomato in America. Smith is a teacher of culinary history at New York’s New School University and author of several other food-related books. This is the first paper printing of The Tomato in America, first published in 1994.
Smith right away tackles the question of how the tomato arrived in the United States, and concludes that the answer is lost to history. Although the plant originated in South or Central America, and was eaten by the Aztecs and others in pre-Conquest Mexico, it wasn’t eaten in North America until it returned here from Europe or perhaps Africa or the Caribbean. Probably all three, depending on the region of the U.S. you’re talking about.
Another major bit of tomato folklore is that people in England and North America didn’t eat tomatoes because they thought them poisonous. Smith shows that, while some labored under that mistaken belief, mostly tomatoes weren’t eaten because people were ignorant of them, and because many people didn’t initially like the way they tasted. Pretty acidic. They grow on you, though.
Many tomato myths set in the 1820s have one person eating raw tomatoes on the courthouse steps or some other public place, to the horror of the gathered crowds, in order to persuade the public that they weren’t poisonous. Smith lays all these myths to rest, offering recipes from the colonies, particularly the Carolinas and Virginia, from well before 1800. By the 1840s, there was a great craze for tomatoes across the country. They were eaten at every meal and viewed as a great medicinal food. Various patent medicine makers vied for the public’s money with tomato pills, reputed to cure all sorts of ailments.
Smith has written a biography of Dr. John Cook Bennett, one of the major figures in the tomato-as-medicine craze. In this book, he spends far too much time (30 pages) on a blow-by-blow history of the tomato medicine wars.
The Tomato in America is pretty much an academic book, and it reads like one. Smith frequently criticizes what he calls “pop historians” who have sometimes furthered the tomato myths he punctures, but he could learn a little about narrative from some of these writers. Throughout the book, he mentions tomato recipes from various periods, for instance, but gathers them all together in a separate section in the back of the book. He’s inconsistent, sometimes using “catsup,” sometimes “ketchup.” And he sometimes uses scientific terms, like “accessions,” without defining them. I’ve been hearing for several years that more salsa than ketchup is now sold in the U.S., and Smith repeats this assertion, but does not back it up with any references. At least, I don’t think he does. The index is so poorly done that it doesn’t list “salsa,” so I couldn’t go back and find the reference.
Still, The Tomato in America is an interesting read, if not an entertaining one. If you’re looking for something more entertaining, if less focused on the tomato, I’d recommend a couple of books Smith lists in his bibliography: Why We Eat What We Eat: How Columbus Changed the Way the World Eats, by Raymond Sokolov; and Food in History, by Reay Tannahill.
Oh, and about calling them “vegetables.” Yeah, yeah, they’re really a “fruit” because they contain the seeds, but they’re mostly used as a vegetable, in soups, salads and other savory dishes. And the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for purposes of a specific lawsuit, they can be regarded as vegetables under tariff laws. Read the book and see.
(University of Illinois, 2001)