Wrongly considered by some for a vegetable, the tomato is actually a fruit, originally cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 A.D. Its use as a food originated in Mexico and was brought in Europe as a fruit of the Spanish colonization of Americas, particularly linked to the conquering of nowadays Mexico City by Cortez in 1521. The anthropologist Marvin Harris reports that the first culinary reference to the tomato comes from companions of Cortez who observed a cannibalism fest of the Aztecs where the human meat was served with tomatoes, squash blossoms and peppers.
For the first 200 years of its British story, the tomato was considered for been poisonous and turning blood into acid. Of course, it was an Englishman to set the stage for the negative view of tomatoes – John Gerard, a barber/surgeon and naturalist in his 1597 General History of Plants stated that tomato was poisonous, even while acknowledging that Spanish and Italians ate the thing. The notorious fame is linked to tomato’s belonging to the “deadly” nightshades, because of which nowadays it is also banned from the menu of people with autoimmune diseases and its high acidity leaching lead from the plates it was normally consumed in and resulting in lead poisoning and deaths.
Known as love apple (aphrodisiac qualities) and wolf peach (from old German wolfpfirsich), the tomato traces its name back to Aztecan tomatl, literally translating as the “swelling fruit”, through Spanish to the earlier 1600s English spelling – tomate.
By the end of the 18th century, most British were quite aware that tomatoes were edible and started growing in their gardens not only because of their beautiful blossoms. The tendency was obviously widely spread out, as John Gabriel Stedman described in 1796 the tomato as “…. being produced in many British gardens” and Encyclopedia Britanica named the “tomato been in daily use in soups, broths and as a garnish”.
The earliest American recipe including tomatoes occurred in South Carolina in 1770 but it is Thomas Jefferson who is largely credited for cultivating the tomato and helping it find its way to every American table, though with the early warning that should always be cooked for three hours.