Janet Long. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The tomato is a perennial plant, generally cultivated as an annual crop. It can be grown in open fields, weather permitting, or in protective structures when temperatures are extreme. In commercial operations, tomatoes are usually planted as a row crop and harvested mechanically when they are still in the green stage. They can also be trained on trellises and harvested throughout most of the year by hand. Tomatoes adapt well and easily to a wide diversity of soils and climates, but they produce best in well-drained soil and temperate climate, with at least a few hours of sunlight each day.

The tomato contains significant amounts of the vitamins A and C, although probably less than the general public has been led to believe. Its importance as a provider of these vitamins depends more on the quantity consumed than on the amount of the vitamins in each fruit. Its vivid color, the fact that it can be used as both a raw and cooked vegetable, and its ability to blend easily with other ingredients has made the tomato a popular international food item and one of the most important vegetables on the world market.

Enormous changes have taken place in the use and distribution of the tomato since the time of its prehistoric origins as a wild, weedy plant. A multidisciplinary research strategy, using archaeo-logical, taxonomical, historical, and linguistic sources is employed in this chapter to trace this remarkable transformation. And finally, special attention is given to the tomatoes of Mexico because that region is believed to have been the center of the domestication of the species and because it is there that tomatoes have the longest history of use, beginning with the indigenous population.


The commercial tomato belongs to the genus Lycopersicon. It is a relatively small genus within the large and diverse family Solanaceae. The genus is currently thought to consist of the cultivated tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum, and seven closely related wild Lycopersicon species (Rick 1976: 268; Taylor 1991: 2), all of which are native to northwestern South America. The wild relatives of the cultivated tomato are confined to a narrow coastal area extending from Ecuador to northern Chile and the Galapagos Islands. Some of the wild species contain valuable genes for disease and pest resistance that can be useful for plant breeders in developing new types of cultivated tomatoes when crossed with L. esculentum. All of the cultivated tomatoes are derived from the species L. esculentum.

The cherry tomato, L. esculentum var. cerasiforme, is believed to be the direct ancestor of modern cultivated tomatoes and is the only wild tomato found outside South America (Rick 1976: 269). It can also be found in Mexico, Central America, and the subtropics of the Old World (Rick 1976: 269). It bears greater genetic resemblance to the cultivated tomato than other wild species, and the two groups can be freely intercrossed (Taylor 1991: 3).

Lycopersicon esculentum and its close relatives are self-pollinating and exclusively inbreeding due to the position of the stigma inside the anther tube. Wild species may have a slightly exserted stigma, which permits outcrossing, usually with the help of bees or the wind. The modification in the position of the stigma is one of the changes brought about by the domestication process. It is easier to produce a homogeneous product from a self-fertilized plant than one that may cross with a related species.

Although the genus Lycopersicon is native to the northwestern coast of South America, there is no archaeological evidence that tomatoes were used by ancient Andean cultures. No plant remains have appeared in site excavations, no clay vessels in the shape of tomatoes have been discovered, and there is no word for the tomato in Quechua or other ancient Andean languages. Such a lack of evidence may indicate that although the tomato existed as a wild species in the Andean region, it was never utilized by pre-Hispanic populations. The commercial tomato in use there at the present time is believed to have been a post-Columbian introduction from Mexico after the Americas were unified under Spanish rule. In Mexico the tomato is known by the Spanish name tomate, derived from the Nahuatl or Aztec tomatl.

As Charles Heiser pointed out some years ago, the theory of the origin of the tomato is strikingly parallel in many ways to that of the chilli pepper, Capsicum spp. (1969: 39). The wild species of both are South American in origin. They reached Mesoamerica 1 at an early date, probably by natural means, and there found a favorable ecological niche, were domesticated, and eventually gave rise, respectively, to the cultivated plants L. esculentum and Capsicum annuum.

Mexican Tomatoes

The most likely region where the tomato was first domesticated is the Puebla-Veracruz area of Mexico, where according to James Jenkins, the greatest varietal diversity of the cultivated form can be found today. It is thought to have reached this area as a weedy cherry tomato, var. cerasiforme, and, upon domestication, to have become the larger-fruited L. esculentum (1948: 391, 386).The cherry tomato frequently grows wild as a weed in cultivated fields and is better adapted to wet tropical conditions than any of the other species. It is also used as a cultivated plant and is a popular item in the diet of indigenous peoples. Both wild and cultivated tomatoes have a distinct and independent nomenclature in several Indian languages, indicating an ancient introduction.

We will probably never know how the cherry tomato traveled from the Andean region of the hemisphere to Mesoamerica. Winds or water could have transported the seeds, as could birds who consumed the seeds, then eliminated them at some distant point. Perhaps all of these means of transportation were involved in a kind of stepping-stone journey, with stops along the way where the seeds became plants that reproduced, and new seeds were picked up and moved again and again by such vectors.

Alternatively, humans may have had a hand in the diffusion of the wild ancestor of the tomato. Perhaps it was carried by migrating populations who, in spite of the great distance and geographical barriers between Mexico and South America, were able to move from one area to another. Or again, its introduction to Mexico may have resulted from contact between the two areas that some archaeologists believe was established by seafaring traders as early as 1600 B.C. (Green and Lowe 1967: 56-7).

Still other questions have to do with the extent to which indigenous peoples of Mexico came to accept the tomato and incorporate it into their diets. The plant may have caught the attention of food gatherers because of its general similarity to the green husk tomato, Physalis (Jenkins 1948: 392). Unlike the plant we just tracked from South America, this plant is native to central Mexico, where it has a significantly longer tradition of dietary usage than the red tomato. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence of its consumption from 900 B.C. in the excavation in the Tehuacan Valley, Puebla, and from 5090 B.C. in the Valley of Mexico (Smith 1967: 248; Flannery 1985: 266). Basalt grater bowls (molcajetes), with incised interiors for grinding vegetal matter, appear in the earliest stratigraphic levels of the excavation in Tehuacan, and clay bowls began to appear around 1500 B.C. (MacNeish 1967: 290-309). The word molcajete comes from the Nahuatl term molcaxitl, composed of molli (sauce) and caxitl (bowl), or “sauce bowl.” One can say with some degree of certainty that they were employed for making salsas of chilli peppers and green (and maybe red) tomatoes, as they are still used in Mexico today.

As in the Andean region, no archaeological evidence of plant remains of the red tomato have been reported from Mesoamerican excavations. In part, this may be because the red tomato is an extremely perishable fruit. However, carbonized seeds are almost indestructible and last indefinitely when they are not mashed or ground up. They can be recuperated from desiccated coprolites (fecal material), which can be reconstituted and returned to their original state in order to be examined. Since coprolites contain the actual materials consumed, analysis of them can provide some important insights into the diet of ancient peoples.

One possible explanation for the absence of tomato seeds in coprolites is that the principal method of preparing tomatoes was by grinding or mashing them in grater bowls or on grinding stones for use in salsas and stews, making the disintegrated seeds impossible to identify in coprolites and other refuse material.

Several changes have taken place in the tomato during the process of domestication. Generally speaking, wild plants have smaller seeds and fruits than the domesticated species. This differentiation can be noted when comparing wild and cultivated tomatoes. Wild tomatoes have two locules, whereas most domesticated fruits are multiloculates, because of an increase in size. Upon domestication, the position of the stigma was established deeper inside the anther tube to insure self-fertilization. Doubt about the extent of such a transformation of the tomato in pre-Columbian times has led some Latin American botanists to view it as a semidomesticated, rather than a fully domesticated plant prior to the arrival of the Europeans. J. León has gone so far as to suggest that it was unimportant as a food crop and considered just another weed in the fields, even though its fruit was the size of some modern varieties (1992: 41-2).

Linguistic evidence is also inconclusive. As previously mentioned, the generic term for the husk tomato in Nahuatl is tomatl, with different prefixes or descriptive adjectives used to identify the particular type. The red tomato is known in Mexico by the Spanish term jitomate from the Nahuatl xitomatl, which may mean “peeled or skinned tomato.” The Nahuatl prefix xi is possibly derived from the verb xipehua, which denotes “to peel, skin, or flay.” This could be a reference to the calyx that covers the fruit of the husk tomato and is lacking in the red variety. When ancient Mexicans came across the red-fruited tomato they may have noted its general similarity to the husk tomato and referred to it by a similar name such as xitomatl, or “peeled tomato,” to differentiate it from the former fruit.

Unfortunately, sixteenth-century Spanish writers did not distinguish between the tomatl and the xitomatl; they translated both as tomate. Thus, it is impossible to determine which tomato they are referring to unless the Nahuatl text is available. In Bernardino de Sahagún’s The General History of the Things of New Spain, written in both Nahuatl and Spanish, there are more references to green tomatoes than red, indicating a more frequent use of the former at the time of the European conquest (Sahagún 1951-69).

Nonetheless, all kinds and colors of tomatoes could be bought in the great Tlatelolco market when the Spaniards arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519.Tomato sellers offered large tomatoes, small tomatoes, green tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, thin tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, large serpent tomatoes, nipple-shaped tomatoes, coyote tomatoes, sand tomatoes, and “those which are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red, quite ruddy, bright red, reddish, rosy dawn colored” (Sahagún 1951-69, Book 10: 79). The bad tomato seller was described as one who sold spoiled tomatoes, bruised tomatoes, and those that caused diarrhea (Sahagún 1951-69, Book 10: 68). Clearly, a large variety of tomatoes was for sale in early sixteenth-century Mexico – such a variety that it is impossible to identify some of the types with those on the market today.

Bernal Díaz, who participated in the conquest of Mexico in 1519, related that when the conquistadors went through Cholula on their way from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan, the Indians “wanted to kill us and eat our meat” and that “they had their cooking pots ready, prepared with chile peppers, tomatoes and salt …” (1980: 148). He also mentioned that the Aztecs ate the arms and legs of their sacrificial victims with a chi-mole sauce, made with chilli peppers, tomatoes, wild onions (xonacatl), and salt (1980: 564). The ingredients were nearly the same as that of salsa mexicana, in use in most Mexican homes today.

Similarly, stews and salsas, sold on the street or in the markets in sixteenth-century Mexico, were made with red or green tomatoes, chilli peppers, and squash seeds as common ingredients (Sahagún 1951-69, Book 10: 70). Another early visitor to Mexico noted that tomatoes were added to salsas to temper the heat of the chilli peppers (Cervantes de Salazar 1914: 118-11).

The sixteenth-century Jesuit priest José de Acosta, who traveled in Mexico and South America, was no doubt referring to red tomatoes when he described them as fresh and healthy, some being large and juicy, and said they made a tasty sauce and were also good for eating by themselves (1940: 178).

Clearly visitors appreciated the tomato, but it was not until the latter half of the sixteenth century that it became the subject of scientific study. Francisco Hernandez, the personal physician of Philip II, was commissioned by the king to catalog and describe the medicinal plants being used in New Spain. Hernandez spent the years between 1570 and 1577 traveling throughout the country, preparing a list of the local plants and illustrating them. Unfortunately, his description of the tomato plant gives us little reliable information, because he confused the husk tomato and the red tomato. For example, his chapter on tomatoes is illustrated with a drawing of the former.

Hernandez did note, however, that the tomato was used for medical purposes. The fruit and its juice were used to soothe throat irritations, to treat the discomfort caused by headaches, earaches, and stomachaches, and to ease the pain of mumps (Hernandez 1946, III: 699-715).

There are many references to the production of both species of tomatoes during the colonial period in Mexico. The two were generally planted together, along with chilli peppers, in house gardens, on chinampas 2 in small plots, and in open fields.

Tomatoes were probably geographically limited to Mesoamerica, as no mention of them was made by early Spanish chroniclers who visited the Caribbean. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, for example, who left the most complete description of New World flora, and whose travels took him to the Caribbean and to parts of South America, but not New Spain, did not mention the tomato.

American Plants Reach Europe

The migration of domesticated plants is closely related to human migration because these plants need human intervention and care to survive. Among other things, many lose their dispersal mechanisms after domestication and cannot be diffused without human help. Unfortunately, plant movements have seldom been considered important enough to warrant registration upon arrival in a new country, which can make the study of plant migration an exercise in frustration for the plant historian.

Many American plants arrived in Iberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, along with the supposedly more precious cargoes of gold and silver. Some seeds were carried on purpose, perhaps by returning Spaniards, who had become accustomed to the taste of New World foods and flavors; others arrived accidentally, hidden in the nooks and crannies of ships.

Not all of the new plants were well received when they first appeared in Europe. This was especially the case with solanaceous ones such as the tomato, the chilli pepper, and the potato, which were regarded with suspicion and fear by Europeans already familiar with other plants of the same family.

Certainly tomatoes were not an easy ingredient to incorporate, even into the Italian diet where they were later to become a mainstay. They neither looked nor tasted like any other vegetable known and used by the Italians, and they had a strange texture and consistency. They were too acid to be eaten while green and looked spoiled when they were soft and ripe. They disintegrated upon cooking and were suspected of being poisonous. Thus, it was only after the passage of some considerable length of time that tomatoes were accepted by the Mediterranean peoples to become as much a part of the local food tradition as are wheat, olives, and wine.

But although culinary acceptance of American foods was delayed, European plant specialists, from the very beginning, displayed great interest in any medicinal qualities they might possess. Old diseases, such as plague, were still affecting parts of Europe in the sixteenth century and had been joined by new diseases, like syphilis, to punish populations. Thus, doctors were in constant search of new remedies to treat these ills. They initially had great hopes for the pharmacologic possibilities of New World organisms but soon realized that the new cultivars offered little relief for European illnesses.

However, the American plants did find a place in botanical gardens, popular among scientists of the time, who also established networks through which they exchanged new and exotic plants as well as information about them. In addition, some became popular as ornamentals and could be found in university gardens and on the estates of the nobility. But the tomato had little to offer as an ornamental. Its flowers are a pale yellowish color, not particularly unusual or attractive, and both its leaves and fruit emit a strong, acrid smell that many plant lovers of the time thought offensive.

Herbals with woodcut engravings became popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and scientists used them in an effort to establish some order in the plant world. The New World cultivars were quickly fitted in, and much valuable information about them can be gleaned from these publications. In the case of the tomato, the plants appears as a small, heavily ridged and compressed fruit, but large enough to have gone through the domestication process.

American plants in Europe spread out along two different routes after their arrival in Iberia. One led north via Flanders, the other into the Mediterranean via Italy – with all of the former and significant portions of the latter then under Spanish domination, which facilitated communication between these areas.

The moderate climate and loose soil of the Mediterranean countries proved ideal for the adaptation of the tomato as well as other New World plants. They arrived, not as competition for the local cultigens already in production, but as complementary crops whose planting and harvesting schedules did not coincide nor interfere with those of the traditional Mediterranean crops.

Tomatoes in Spain

Spain was doubtless the first stop for the tomato on its migration throughout Europe because Castile held a monopoly on the transport of its New World products to the Continent. Unfortunately, although officials of the Casa de la Contratación3 kept a watchful eye on all cargo unloaded in Seville so as to ensure the collection of royal import taxes, they seldom recorded the arrival of new plants. Thus, there is no record of the arrival of the tomato in Seville – the only port for Spanish ships returning from the New World.

In fact, there are few historical references to the use of tomatoes in sixteenth-century Spain.They may have been adopted first by rural people, who ate them fresh with a little salt like their eighteenth-century peasant descendants in southern Spain (McCue 1952: 327). No Spanish cookbooks were published at this time, however, and there is no mention of tomatoes having been a part of the diet in the early years.

Nor were tomatoes included in sixteenth-century Spanish herbals, although several described and illustrated New World plants. The husk tomato, for example, arrived in the sixteenth century and is known to have been cultivated in botanical gardens in southern Spain. It was listed as an exchange plant from the garden of Dr. Juan Castañeda, a physician at the Flamenco Hospital in Seville, to the Belgian botanist Clusius (Charles de l’Ecluse) at the end of the century (Alvarez Lopez 1945: 276). Castañeda appears to have been Clusius’s principal supplier of American and Iberian plants. Clusius made several trips to Spain to obtain information and specimens of new plants, but he did not mention having encountered the tomato on his travels.

The first written reference to the cultivation of the tomato in Spain was penned around the turn of the seventeenth century. It appeared in a small book by Gregorio de Rios, a priest who worked in the botanical garden of Aranjuéz, which was supported by the King, Philip II. This book, Agricultura de jardines, que trata de la manera que se han de criar, governar y conservar las plantas, mentions several American plants. Rudolf Grewe has translated his comments on the tomato as follows: “Tomatoes [pomates in the original]: There are two or three kinds. It is a plant that bears some segmented fruits [pomas aquarteronadas] that turn red and do not smell. It is said that they are good for sauces. They have seeds, last for two or three years, and require a lot of water. There is a kind said to be from Cairo” (Grewe 1988: 73). By this time at least some Spaniards had apparently adopted the Aztec method of preparing tomatoes in a sauce.

Tomatoes appeared on the list of purchases of the Hospital de la Sangre in Seville in the early seventeenth century. Four pounds were purchased on July 20, and another 2 pounds on August 17, 1608 (Hamilton 1976: 859). The same account lists the purchase of cucumbers “for making salads,” and it is possible that tomatoes were used for the same purpose. This appears to have been the only attempt of the hospital to introduce the tomato into its diet as there seem to have been no further purchases.

In addition to such rather scanty seventeenth-century historical information on the tomato there can be added information from indirect sources. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish writers had a fascination with all things from the New World and delighted in borrowing vocabulary from Hispanic Indian languages in their works. Among the words most frequently used were those of fruits and vegetables. Spanish variations of Nahuatl, Quechua, and Caribbean plant names appear in the works of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molino, Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra, and Francisco de Quevedo (Morínigo 1946). The new names, including those for the tomato, were used as metaphors, in analogies, or merely for the exotic sounds of the words in poetry and drama.

Painters also found the new fruits and vegetables colorful subjects for still-life paintings that became popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Bartolomé Murillo’s “The Kitchen of Angels,” painted for the Franciscan Convent in Seville, depicts the preparation of a dish using tomatoes and squash, a combination that was to become typically Mediterranean. The seventeenth century witnessed severe economic problems throughout the Mediterranean. In Spain the expulsion of the Moriscos, who had contributed so much to the agriculture of that country, brought a sharp decline in crop production. The resulting famine was joined by the return of the plague, which added to the general misery by considerably reducing the workforce. All of these factors contributed to a severe scarcity of food, which may have encouraged desperate rural peoples to put aside their fear of being poisoned and experiment with tomatoes in their diets.

One suspects this was the case because in the following century it was noted that tomatoes were a common ingredient in the diet of the rich, who ate them because they liked them, and of the poor, who ate them because they had no choice (McCue 1952: 327). Tomatoes were produced in abundance on truck farms and irrigated fields throughout the country, especially in southern Spain, where they could be harvested year-round. Indeed, farmers were eating tomatoes for breakfast, and a plate of fried red tomatoes and peppers constituted the main meal of the day for many (McCue 1952: 327).

Several American plants were fully adopted into the Mediterranean diet in the eighteenth century, and the more abundant and nutritious diet they allowed has been credited by some with bringing about a mid-century increase in the population.

Under the influence of a new and burgeoning merchant class in the eighteenth century, a greater emphasis was placed on simple, regional food and the use of local ingredients by everyone, not just the peasants. American vegetables fit well into this new culinary style and were included in the diet, not as new and exotic dishes, but as ingredients that added new flavors to traditional dishes such as thick soups, stews, ragouts, and goulash. In Spain, for example, tomatoes were incorporated into gazpacho (an ancient bread soup, probably dating from Roman times), the rice dish, paella, and bacalao (salted codfish). In the process, such dishes acquired new appearances as well as new flavors. The Spanish food historian Nestor Lujan has written that some would like to believe that Spanish and Italian cuisines only began with the introduction of the tomato, because so many dishes cannot be made without it (Lujan 1989: 126).

Clearly, then, tomatoes were well established in Spain by the nineteenth century. In that century, reports from Spain described an abundant production of tomatoes on truck farms and gardens in that country. It was noted that tomatoes were eaten raw with salt, formed the base of sauces, and were cooked in various other ways (McCue 1952: 328).

Tomatoes in Italy

Italy was probably the first country to receive the tomato after Spain, since, as already mentioned, there was a strong Spanish cultural influence apparent during the sixteenth century in those parts of Italy under Spanish domination.

Italy proved to be an ideal country for the adaptation of American plants. The climate and soil were similar to that of central Mexico, and the new plants adjusted easily to the area. Initially, however, tomatoes were grown only in pots and kitchen gardens because they needed a well-managed water supply during the setting of the fruit in summer, usually a dry season in the Mediterranean.

Unlike other parts of Europe, where fresh vegetables were considered food for the poor, Italians had (and have) a singular appreciation for them. This may have been a heritage of the Roman Empire, when men preferred light, easily digestible foods that could be eaten in a supine position. The pressure of growing populations during the second half of the sixteenth century was probably also an incentive to try the new foods.

The tomato in Italy was first mentioned by Petrus Andreas Matthiolus. In the first edition of his herbal Della historia e materia medicinale, published in Venice in 1544, it was not referred to by name, but in his 1554 edition he gave it the name of pomi d’oro. Unfortunately, Matthiolus mistakenly referred to the tomato as a member of the mandrake family, which focused suspicion upon the plant for centuries to come, as many botanists and writers repeated his description of the plant time and time again. In the 1544 edition he described the unnamed fruit as segmented, green at first, and then acquiring a golden color upon ripening, and he noted that it was eaten like the eggplant, fried in oil with salt and pepper. From his description, it seems apparent that the first tomatoes to reach Italy were yellow, although in the 1554 edition, he added that they also ripened in tones of red (McCue 1952: 292).

At about the same time as the second edition of Matthiolus appeared, a Flemish botanist, Rembert Dodoens, published his herbal, Cruydt-Boeck, in Antwerp. He was apparently the first to assign to the tomato the name poma amoris or “love apple,” which was adopted in translation by the French and English. This name gave the tomato a certain reputation as an aphrodisiac, which probably did nothing to discourage its use. The engraving that accompanied his work shows the tomato as a small, irregular, flat fruit with prominent segments and the name Gulden Appel, translated from the Italian pomi d’oro (McCue 1952: 299).

Interestingly, the name poma peruviana was given the tomato by Piero Antonio Michel in his herbal, I cinque libri di plante, published in 1575 (Jenkins 1948: 382). This must have been nothing more than a remarkable coincidence because he surely could not have been aware that Peru was, in fact, the center of origin of the tomato. Like other European botanists of the time, he was not well informed about New World geography and may actually have considered it as just one general area.

In 1572, another sixteenth-century Italian herbalist, Guilandini de Padua, called the tomato the “tumatle from Themistitan.” It has been pointed out that this designation probably represents a corrupt spelling of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of Mexico, referred to as Temistitan by Hernando Cortés in two of his letters to the Spanish king, written shortly after the Conquest (Jenkins 1948: 382).

We mentioned that in 1554 Matthiolus observed that tomatoes were fried in oil with salt and pepper, like the eggplant. This may be the first recorded description of Italian tomato sauce. However, its first authentic recipe only appeared in 1692 in one of the early Italian cookbooks, Lo scalco alla moderna, written by Antonio Latini that was published in Naples (Grewe 1988: 74).Apparently the Spaniards had introduced the Aztec method of preparing the tomato in a sauce into Italy, along with the tomato, because a tomato sauce recipe “in the Spanish style” is included in the book. It called for tomatoes, chilli peppers, onion, salt, oil, and vinegar. However, other recipes for tomato sauce were also published that did not ask for peppers, indicating a separation of these two foods in Europe that were so closely linked in Mesoamerican cooking. The tomato, of course, which combined easily with European ingredients and found multiple uses in the diet, became far more important in Mediterranean cooking than peppers.

The careful hands of Italian gardeners improved the tomato through selective pressures, turning it into a large, smooth, and thicker-skinned fruit than that which had arrived in the sixteenth century. In addition, they developed a manner of prolonging the use of this perishable vegetable by drying it in the sun, which permitted its reconstitution and use throughout the winter. Much later, tomatoes were canned in southern Italy and became an important item of export. Italian emigrants to the United States and Argentina took their food traditions with them and established a demand for the tomato and tomato sauce in the Americas (Casanova and Bellingeri 1988: 165).

Eastern Mediterranean Tomatoes

The botanist Edgar Anderson has credited the Turks with the diffusion of the tomato into the Levant and the Balkan countries. The Turks probably diffused American plants to eastern Mediterranean countries in the sixteenth century when the Ottoman Empire was dominant in the area. They would have become acquainted with the plants in Italian or Spanish ports and taken them to other countries, much as they did when they took the chilli pepper into Hungary in 1526 (Long-Solis 1988: 62). Peppers and maize also became popular items in the diet of Balkan countries, and Fernand Braudel wrote that it was the Turks who introduced rice, sesame seeds, cotton, and maize into the area in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Braudel 1976, II: 779). In addition, Anderson has noted that there is a wide and apparently coherent area, encompassing the Balkans and Turkey and running along the edge of Iran toward Arabia and Ethiopia, where the tomato has been used for centuries in the everyday diet of common people (Anderson, in McCue 1952: 289-348). The culinary legacy of the Turks is still evident in Mediterranean cuisine from Yugoslavia in the east to Algeria in the west. The popular salads made with tomatoes and peppers, known as peperonata in Italy, can be found in the diet of every Mediterranean country, with only slight variations.

Tomatoes in the Far East

Tomatoes became an important part of the Chinese diet only during this century, although they were probably carried to China from the Philippines much earlier. The Spaniards arrived in the Philippines from Mexico in 1564, and after establishing their dominion, introduced many Mesoamerican plants.

From there the tomato reached southern China, perhaps as early as the 1500s, where it was given the name fan chieh (barbarian eggplant).The name itself suggests an early introduction. Anderson has pointed out that several crops are known in South China by names that combine the adjective fan (southern barbarian) with the name of a long-established Chinese crop (Anderson 1988: 80). Crops with these names were early introductions; New World crops arriving later are known by the more complimentary adjective hsi, meaning Western, or yang, meaning ocean (Anderson 1988: 94).

African Tomatoes

Tomatoes are an important food product in Africa today, but the question arises as to how long this has been the case and when they first arrived. The most likely answer is that invaders, explorers, missionaries, and traders all played a role in the tomato’s introduction.

The food habits of a region often reflect the influence of such outsiders, and certainly, Portuguese explorers and slave traders would have had an early opportunity to participate in such a cultural transfusion. Probably, Arab traders, active in the ports of Mozambique and Angola, were also instrumental in introducing new crops into Africa.

Another common route for plant diffusion in the early centuries was by way of a well-connected network of monasteries and convents in which seeds and plants were exchanged to help feed the personnel of these institutions. In addition, European botanical gardens had a hand in introducing new plants and crops into English, French, and Dutch colonies of Africa and Asia.

Thus, by at least the seventeenth century, the tomato was in cultivation in North Africa, with an English traveler reporting in 1671 that Spanish tomates were grown in the common fields in West Barbary (McCue 1952: 330). Several reports of similar cultivation plots were made in the eighteenth century; by the end of the nineteenth century, tomatoes appear to have been widespread throughout the continent.

Tomatoes in the United States

Despite their being native to the Americas, tomatoes had to be introduced into North America from Europe. Although this introduction occurred in the eighteenth century, tomatoes were slow to gain much of a place in the diet until relatively recently. Today, however, tomatoes rank second only to potatoes as the most important vegetable on the U.S. market. They are also the basic ingredient in that most American of sauces, tomato catsup. In recent years, however, Mexican salsa, composed of tomatoes, chilli peppers, onions, and seasoning has become even more popular on the market than catsup.

The main contribution of the United States to the history of the tomato has been the important role it has played in genetic research programs that have contributed to its improvement. The tomato has many characteristics that make it an ideal subject for plant research. It has an ability to produce and prosper in a diversity of climates and a short life cycle so that it can produce three generations per year under a well-managed program. Tomatoes produce high seed yields. A self-pollinating mechanism practically eliminates outcrossing, although plants can be crossed under controlled conditions. All of these qualities have enabled rapid progress in the improvement of the tomato in the past decades (Rick 1976: 272).

Genetic resources from wild South American species have helped in the development of cultivars that are tolerant to drought, extreme temperatures, and high-salt content in soils and have increased resistance to the diseases and insects that plague tomatoes.

Other improvements are increased crop yields through larger fruit size and an increase in the number of fruits. Improved fruit quality is evident in the shape, texture, color, and flavor of the product. Post-harvest handling has been improved and storage durability increased. The restricted growth gene has been exploited, making mechanical harvesting easier because of the uniformity of the height of tomato plants. Harvesters have become more elaborate and larger, allowing them to harvest at a faster rate.

In addition, the tomato has been an ideal subject for research in genetic engineering, where the majority of such research is carried out on plants, such as the tomato, that are important as staple foods in basic diets around the world. Resistance to certain diseases that have proved difficult to treat and an improvement in the control of fruit ripening and color are some of the aspects being investigated. Important changes in the quality of tomatoes can be expected through genetic engineering in coming years.