Think Italian food and you all but invariably think tomato. Where would pasta and pizza be without their blankets of red sauce? Naked, that's where. And what would become of that stand-by of summer, the caprese salad, without its juicy sliced tomatoes? A platter of nothing but mozzarella sprinkled with strips of basil just doesn't cut it. Not for me anyway.
Hard as it may be to fathom, though, time was when Italian food had not a single tomato. It couldn't have. No one in Europe had ever heard of the fruit (for fruit it technically is, despite the fact that most people consider it a vegetable)—nor, for that matter, of potatoes, corn, peanuts, chili peppers, or chocolate, to name just a few of the foods without which it's almost impossible to conceive of a good day's eating. They were all of them brought to Europe—and hence to Italian and French cuisine—from the New World, either by the early sixteenth-century Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez (the same who destroyed Aztec civilization) or, perhaps a few decades earlier, by Christopher Columbus himself. Originally from the highlands of Peru, the tomato had been cultivated by the Aztecs whose Nahuatl name for it was xitomatl, or "edible plump fruit" (tomatl meant simply "plump fruit" while miltomatl, their name for what we know as the tomatillo, meant "husk plump fruit").
But it's tough for a mouth used to Italian or Spanish to wrap itself around xitomatl
—and so it's no surprise that accommodations were made. The Spanish took the course of least resistance and simply dropped the prefix, which is why gazpacho, that wonderful Iberian summer soup, calls for tomates
. Italian, poetic language that it is, took a more metaphorical tack: the first written mention in Italian appears in a 1544 herbal by the physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli who called it a pomo d'oro
, "golden apple" (most unfamiliar fruits and vegetables were named after apples and presumably the type Mattioli was familiar with was yellow). Other countries were similarly fanciful: the French called it a pomme d'amour
, "love apple"—as did the English briefly—apparently because its foliage was believed to have a resemblance to that of the mandrake, long believed to possess aphrodisiac powers. Similarly, one of the German names for the fruit was, and is, Paradeisapfel
, or "paradise apple."
My favorite name of all, though, was the original one bestowed on the innocent unsuspecting tomato by the Germans whose medieval legends were full of menacing creatures like witches and werewolves. According to folklore, witches used plants from the nightshade family to summon werewolves, and since the tomato is a member of that deadly family, it was implicated in the sinister ritual. Thus began its association with werewolves and thus came into being its original German name Wolfpfirsich, "wolf peach" (perhaps it was the lush juiciness of the tomato that reminded someone of the peach?). To this day, the name assigned to the tomato in the Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature is Lycopersicon esculentum, or "edible wolf peach."
In the United States, as well, the tomato has had a checkered past. Physicians believed that eating them would rot away the stomach lining and duly warned against them. It took an astonishing act of showmanship to prove them wrong. In 1808 (or perhaps it was 1820 or even 1830), a Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey (not Salem, Massachusetts, as many have claimed in their attempt to keep the witchy associations going) and consumed an entire basket of tomatoes. "The foolish Colonel will foam and froth at the mouth," his doctor insisted; "One dose and he is dead. He might even be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he by some unlikely chance survive, his skin will stick to his stomach and cause cancer." To the astonishment of the more than 2,000 people who had gathered to witness his sure and gruesome suicide, Johnson suffered not the slightest ill effect. (It would be remiss of me not to note, however that many historians doubt the veracity of this account.)
Here's a final thought: did you ever wonder why pincushions are so often shaped like tomatoes? According to Victorian folklore, evil
spirits were less likely to enter your home if you placed a tomato on the mantle; when tomatoes were out of season, round balls of red fabric filled with sand or sawdust were substituted. Happily, the pseudo-tomato turned out to have a practical use as well: it was the perfect place to store pins. The customary strawberry tassel, by the way, is filled with fine abrasive sand to sharpen those pins, and how many of you who sew knew that?