Monday, June 6, 2011

Tomato Week: A Tale of Lust and Fear

The tomato is the fruit of the plant Lycopersicon lycopersicum - a member of the Solanaceae or Nightshade family. Technically it is a fruit but has long been served and sauced as a vegetable.

A native of South America, the tomato was transplanted to Europe by Spanish explorers. Some say Cortez stole it from the Aztecs. Others attribute its entree into Old World culture to Columbus. However the plant seeds made their transit, Spain's exploration and subsequent colonization of Central and South America, the Caribbean as well as the Philippines is credited with the spread of tomato horticulture around the world.

For centuries thereafter, the tomato inspired lust and fear. A hint of this history is evident in its many names.

The Aztec Empire knew it as Xitomatl, a ‘plump thing with a navel’.

The Spanish explorers and missionaries who transported its seeds to the Old World first categorized the tomato as an apple, calling it manzana.

The secondary name in Spanish circles for the tomato - el Pome dei Moro, the Moor’s Apple - blackened its reputation as poison. This was wise, but not fully accurate. The leaves of the tomato plant do contain toxic alkaloids, but not its fruit.

In 1544, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist named it pomo d’oro, or "golden apple,"  referencing the golden glow of these first transplants.

Italians first grew the tomato about 1550 and apparently were the first Europeans to eat it. About 25 years later it was grown in English, Spanish and mid-European gardens as an ornamental with little or no interest as food.

The French gave it the name pomme d'amour due to its botanical relationship to the mandrake, or "love plant," noted in the Bible for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. The French appellation may also have been a translation error between similar but different Romance languages.

You know how history gets written: never let the facts stand in the way of a good story. Regardless of its precise etymology, this is where  tomato history gets juicy.

So hot was the belief that tomato as an aphrodisiac, the Church of Rome banned it as "the devil's fruit" and a sinful indulgence. (This sealing its popularity with Catholics and others around the world.)

Fruit? Vegetable? Ornamental? Edible? Poison? Love potion? Was ever a plant so maligned and misunderstood?

In fact, misunderstanding of the tomato's properties caused dread in some cultures. For instance, in German folk tales, tomatoes were used by witches to transform humans into werewolves. Oh, those German fairy tales.

Linnaeus, the man who created the current scientific naming system of binomial nomenclature, recalled this legend and gave the tomato the name Lycopersicon esculentum.

How the tomato became a staple in every kitchen is a story for another day.

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