• Unhealthy, Smelly, and Strange: Why Italians Avoided Tomatoes for Centuries

    William Alexander on the Tomato's Rocky Road from Exotic Curiosity to Culinary Staple

    Just when did tomatoes arrive in Europe? We can pinpoint many events of the Spanish Conquest down to the hour, but historians haven’t been able to determine even the decade that tomatoes made landfall, because the Castilian tax collectors at the Port of Seville who collected the quinto real—the royal fifth—logged every last coin, necklace, and silver plate that came off the galleons, but couldn’t have been less interested in plants, never mind seeds.

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    (Future historians of this century will have it easier, being able to study, for example, the May 2018 attempted smuggling of a single slice of tomato into the United States, thanks to the air-port sandwich that has resulted in my being flagged by US Home-land Security as an “agricultural violator,” I suppose for life. And it was a lousy tomato, besides.)

    When the tomato started to circulate throughout Italy, Giulia [Marinelli, a guide at the Museo del Pompodoro, the world’s only museum dedicated to the tomato] says, it was so foreign that Italians weren’t even sure which part of the plant was meant to be eaten. Some gourmands pronounced it inedible after munching on the leaves. And, Giulia adds, “It was considered poisonous by many.” (The leaves, in large quantities, are.)

    Certainly, being in the nightshade family did the tomato no favors, for its fellow nightshade, belladonna, is one of the most toxic plants on the planet, having killed off more popes, cardinals, and Roman emperors than syphilis. Belladonna’s toxicity belies its unthreatening name—“beautiful woman” in Italian—which comes from its former use by Italian women to dilate their pupils to an alluring size, the allure perhaps proving too great for those donna who went from bella to blind after repeated use.

    Still, one has to wonder why—or even if—the tomato was singled out as being poisonous, while other members of the night-shade family, including some that were obviously more closely related to the tomato than belladonna—eggplant and peppers, for example—had long been part of the Italian diet. In fact, the tomato was sometimes misidentified as a new type of eggplant by 16th-century botanists, who therefore certainly knew it wasn’t poisonous.

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    When the tomato started to circulate throughout Italy, it was so foreign that Italians weren’t even sure which part of the plant was meant to be eaten.

    It wasn’t until the early 1600s that tomatoes started to be eaten, likely gaining their earliest acceptance in Andalucía, the Spanish province that includes Seville, their port of entry. Records from Seville’s Hospital de la Sangre show a purchase of tomatoes during the summer of 1608—but never again, suggesting that its patients weren’t clamoring for more. Not surprisingly, Spanish tomatoes were first prepared in the Aztec style, sautéed in oil with chiles. Only in the 19th century—three hundred years after their European debut—would the Spanish add tomatoes to the already traditional gazpacho and paella.

    In fact, Spain’s major 16th-century contribution to the tomato, other than “discovering” it, may have been confusing it with the tomatillo. The Aztecs called the tomato xitomatl and the (distantly related) tomatillo miltomatl, the root for each, tomatl, meaning “round fruit,” with prefixes to distinguish the different varieties. Unfortunately, Spanish writers of the 16th century picked up only the root, calling both tomate in Spanish, and that included Francisco Hernández, Spain’s most prominent physician and naturalist.

    Hernández was sent by King Philip II to Mexico in 1571 to study the flora and fauna of the New World. Five years later he had compiled sixteen folio volumes detailing the plants and animals he found. Admirable work, although because of his loose nomenclature, his discussion of the tomato was accompanied by an illustration of the wrong tomate. Worse, the tomato/tomatillo error followed the vegetables to Italy (and, as you can see, nearly into English), where both vegetables became pomodoro, a mistake that bedevils scholars of one or the other to this day.

    In Italy, when tomatoes were first consumed, it was by the wealthy, and as an exotic curiosity, much like adventurous eaters today might try fugu, the potentially deadly puffer fish, while visiting Japan. But among the vast majority of Europeans, tomatoes, even after they were recognized as an edible plant, were rarely eaten throughout the Renaissance—the main reason being, in fact, the Renaissance.

    Oddly enough, the period of unprecedented culture and learning that pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages may have helped usher in the three-hundred-year-long dark age of the tomato. How so? Well, the spark that lit the Renaissance was the rediscovery—and fresh appreciation—of classical antiquity; that is, the culture of ancient Rome and Greece, and everything old was new again, sometimes literally: One of Michelangelo’s very earliest commissions, following his teenage years as an apprentice in the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici (a half cousin of sorts to our friend Cosimo), was such a convincing replica of an ancient Roman Cupid that it was scuffed up a bit and sold by an unscrupulous dealer as a freshly unearthed artifact.

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    The forgery was soon uncovered (due to flaws in the aging, not in the artistry), but instead of ending Michelangelo’s career in scandal before it ever began, his ability to replicate the classical arts established the young artist as a talented sculptor. In fact, the scammed buyer, a Roman cardinal, was so impressed that, even while decrying the forgery, he hired the forger, bringing Michelangelo to Rome. The rest, as they say, is history. The intriguing question of whether Michelangelo launched his career by knowingly participating in art forgery is still a matter of debate.

    At the other end of his career, Michelangelo was commissioned to redesign the square in front of Rome’s Capitoline Hill in order to provide a worthy setting for the only surviving equestrian statue of ancient Rome, a magnificent, larger-than-life bronze of Marcus Aurelius, who ruled the Roman Empire from AD 161 to 180. And, to come full circle, it was Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician, Galen of Pergamon, who may well have squashed the Renaissance tomato.

    The embrace of classicism that embodied the Renaissance was by no means restricted to art and architecture. Ancient literature, science, and medicine—such as it was—were all unearthed and scoured for clues about how to live a better life. And Renaissance Italians believed there was much to learn from Galen.

    Greek by birth, Galen of Pergamon was a juggernaut of a physician: Doctors Spock, Salk, and Oz all rolled into one. After settling in Rome at the age of thirty-three, he quickly rose through the ranks of Top Docs, serving as the personal physician of several emperors and inciting enough professional jealousy among his peers (of which, in fact, he believed he had none) that he lived in constant fear of being poisoned.

    Galen was more than just an ambitious self-promoter, however. A physician, scientist, and philosopher, he was the first to demonstrate (by severing the appropriate nerves of a squealing pig) that the larynx generates the voice. He was the first to recognize the differences between arterial and venous blood. He discovered the distinction between sensory and motor nerves and even per-formed the first successful cataract surgeries.

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    He wrote books on pharmacology and practiced an early form of what would come to be called “psychoanalysis.” His anatomical studies—done with monkeys and pigs because dissection of human cadavers was illegal in ancient Rome—remained the standard reference works in Europe for an astounding fifteen hundred years. Without a doubt Galen possessed one of the finest minds of the Roman era. Perhaps his only flaw (other than his ego) was that he was hopelessly in the thrall of Hippocrates and the ancient Greek physician’s theory of humorism, developed back in the fourth century BC.

    Humorism is the study, I should note, not of comedy, but of the “humors”—internal substances thought to regulate human health and behavior. Hippocrates had identified them as blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, writing, “Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other.” This doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary until you understand that prior to Hippocrates, all illnesses were blamed on the gods, which is one reason why Hippocrates is considered “the father of medicine.”

    In the second century AD, Galen expanded upon the Hippocratic theories, drawing a connection between specific foods and humors, and between humors and personality types. If you were melancholy, it was because you had too much black bile. The sunny outlook of optimists was due to an abundance of blood. An early proponent of “You are what you eat,” Galen, who might qualify as the world’s first celebrity diet doctor, believed that by adjusting the diet you could alter both your health and your disposition.

    Whether it’s the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet, or Galen’s Diet, dietary theory requires classifying foods, and Galen chose a simple two-way grid: hot or cold crossed with wet or dry. So, while some foods might be, say, hot and dry, others were cold and wet, or cold and dry. A hot-tempered Roman might be advised to eat foods classified as “cold” to correct the imbalance. Runny nose? Eat hot and dry foods to counteract that phlegm. Some foods, given their classification, were best avoided altogether.

    During the Renaissance, Galen’s fourteen-hundred-year-old writings—based on theories established another five hundred years earlier—were being rediscovered and reinterpreted at roughly the same time as the discovery of a cornucopia of unfamiliar New World vegetables, all of which had to then be assigned to Galen’s hot/cold/wet/dry/healthy/unhealthy schema.

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    Tomatoes did not fare well. Relegated to the least favorable Galenic permutation—“cold and wet,” like a damp basement—they were, in the opinion of botanists, “dangerous and harmful,” with “perhaps the highest degree of coldnesse.” A 1585 description granted that “they are cold, but not as cold as the mandrake,” giving the new vegetable but a slight nod over a hallucinogenic root. Their chilly, damp nature was thought to hinder digestion, an impression likely reinforced by the tomato’s acidity.

    The tomato’s Galenic classification was unfortunate but spot-on: Tomatoes are cold and wet. I’m always amazed at how a ripe tomato, picked from a sunny garden on a warm day, will feel cool—sometimes unpleasantly so—in the mouth. I imagine this stems from its high water content; tomatoes are 95 percent water, among the highest in the fruit and vegetable world.

    Additionally, tomatoes were easy to classify as unhealthy because few were eager to eat them. The fruits tasted a bit sour, and the foliage, in the words of several botanists, “stunk.” One of the things that has always struck me is how strongly the tomato’s foliage smells like its fruits, even as three-inch-tall seedlings. I can’t think of any other plant that has this quality, which chefs sometimes take advantage of by throwing a few tomato leaves into a sauce.

    But while tomatophiles today may cherish the smell as a harbinger of a summer BLT, the strong odor of tomato leaves (thought to be even stronger back then than it is today) seems to have offended Renaissance sensibilities. Flemish herbalist Matthias de l’Obel warned in 1581 that “the strong, stinking smell gives one sufficient notice how unhealthful and evil they are to eat,” while the late 16th-century English botanist John Gerard thought them “rank and stinking.” As late as 1731 the English Gardeners Dictionary noted that “the plants emit so strong an effluvium as renders them unfit to stand near an habitation, or any other place that is much frequented.”

    Contemporary reviews on the tomato’s taste aren’t much better, although there are not an abundance of them to be found. (After all, people don’t write about the tastes of things they don’t eat.) A physician from Padua, Giovanni Domenico Sala, writing in 1628 about the revolting consumption of locusts, spiders, and crickets by other cultures, included tomatoes among the “strange and horrible things” that “a few unwise people” were eating. Hernández, for his part, put tomatoes in his chapter on “sour and acid plants,” and one “unwise person” who did eat them recommended that cooked tomatoes be sweetened—with sour grapes.

    Certainly, the tomatoes of the 1600s were not nearly as pleasant to eat as today’s varieties, which have profited from centuries of breeding to make them sweeter and less acidic. The Aztecs them-selves preferred tomatillos (which tells you something) and rarely ate tomatoes on their own, generally seasoning them, as mentioned earlier, with chiles, spices, and the occasional bipedal captive.

    Unhealthy, smelly, and strange: It’s really no mystery why tomatoes were not an easy sell in Renaissance Europe. And we’re not done. As if the resurrected Galen hadn’t done enough dam-age, the reputation of this New World vegetable seems to have suffered further from another association with the good doctor, as some believed the tomato to be “Galen’s wolf peach,” a lost, poisonous fruit described by Galen as possessing strong-smelling yellow juice and a ribbed appearance, which is in fact a pretty accurate description of the yellow tomatoes found in Italy in the 1500s.

    Although debunked even by some botanists of the day, including Hernández, who pointed out that tomatoes, because they were not even introduced into Italy until the 1500s, could not possibly be Galen’s wolf peach, the association stuck, and lives on today in the tomato’s scientific, or Latin, name, Solanum lycopersicum, with the genus lycopersicum meaning “wolf peach.”

    Both the connection to Galen’s wolf peach and the Tuscan Italian name for the tomato, pomodoro, suggest that the early tomatoes in Italy weren’t always, or even predominantly, red. Pomodoro (originally spelled pomo d’oro) means “golden apple,” or more properly, “golden apple-type fruit.” “Golden tree fruit” is an odd name for something that clearly didn’t grow on trees, but historian David Gentilcore points out that pomo d’oro was widely used at the time to describe all kinds of things: figs and melons, even citrus fruits.

    And there was a classical, mythical fruit called pomo d’oro that shows up in a tale involving Greek nymphs and fantastical golden apples, so rather than add another name to the lexicon, it seems that the Tuscans reached back into antiquity—and remember, there was a lot of reaching into antiquity going on back then—to label this new fruit.

    Unhealthy, smelly, and strange: It’s really no mystery why tomatoes were not an easy sell in Renaissance Europe.

    Let’s give the Italians some credit for correctly identifying it (at least in name) as a fruit. Admittedly, I’ve been mostly referring to it thus far as a “vegetable.” We’ll have to convene the US Supreme Court to resolve this contentious question in the next chapter, but until it gets sorted, I’ll mostly call it a vegetable because I eat it in a salad, not on ice cream. But at times I’ll also refer to the “fruit” of the plant when that terminology seems appropriate. Capisci?

    As far as the vast majority of 16th-century Italians were concerned, of course, the pomodoro was neither a fruit nor a vegetable. It wasn’t food. And while we’ve been focusing on Italy, because it was the country that would eventually launch the tomato to stardom, tomatoes weren’t any more popular in the rest of Europe, not even arriving in England until the 1590s, when they were initially called love apples or sometimes apples of love. Similarly, the French labeled them pommes d’amour. (Apple at the time was a generic word for any fruit.)

    How the English and the French came to associate tomatoes with love is a subject of some disagreement, leaving us to choose among the fruit’s alleged aphrodisiacal properties, its resemblance to a human heart, and its being put in the same botanical classification as the aforementioned mandrake (“love plant” in Hebrew), which since biblical times has been associated with fertility.

    Gentilcore believes that the love connection is yet another consequence of that vexing error of the tomato having been conflated with the tomatillo, for as the tomatillo’s husk dries, it splits open, revealing the fruit inside, which runs from pale green to purple. The Spanish botanist Francisco Hernández found this “vene-real and lascivious” appearance, evocative of a woman’s genitals, “horrible and obscene,” although to others, less offended, it may have screamed “love apple.”

    Personally, as one who has such difficulty with foreign languages that I once used my newly acquired French to tell a waiter in a three-star Parisian restaurant, “I’ll have the ham in news-paper and my son will have my daughter,” I think that the true explanation is much simpler: Pomodoro was heard by foreigners as something like pom’amoro—“love apple.” End of story.

    Whatever the origin, the “love apple” moniker would stick around until the 19th century, when both England and France would lose the love, adopting the Spanish, not the Italian word, leaving us with, respectively, tomato and tomate, although the masculine el tomate transitioned on the way to France, emerging as la tomate. Linguistically, the tomato camp remains divided into two worlds: All of Western Europe (outside of Italy) and North Africa use a variation of the Spanish tomate, while derivations of pomodoro leapfrogged the Adriatic Sea and the Balkans to land in Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and other Eastern European countries.

    Whatever you called them, tomatoes remained unpopular, unloved, and uneaten well into the 1600s. Of course, the evidence (including my last two meals here) would suggest that at some point attitudes changed. On the way into the Museum of the Tomato, I’d asked Giulia Marinelli why Italians didn’t eat tomatoes for centuries. Now, on my way out, I ask her the converse: “What spurred Italians to start eating them? Was it a cultural change, or had the tomato changed?”

    She thinks for a moment. “It was many things. But, you know, in America, in the early 19th century, they did, let’s say, shows, to let people understand that the fruit was not poisonous.”

    No, I didn’t know.


    Excerpted from the book Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World by William Alexander. Copyright © 2022 by William Alexander. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.


    William Alexander
    William Alexander
    William Alexander is a New York Times bestselling author and the writer of three critically-acclaimed books, including The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden. He's been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and has written for the New York Times, the LA Times, Saveur, and others.

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