Still Life with Tomatoes a Bowl of Aubergines and Onions By Luis Egidio Meléndez, via Wikimedia Commons, early 19th century
Tomato season has finally arrived here in Connecticut. In my garden, I have Sungolds ripening by the dozen each day, and the larger Brandywines heavy on the vine.
The tomato is native to western South America and Central America, and was probably brought back to Europe by Cortez in the 16th century. But they were just used as decoration. It was two hundred more years before people actually dared to eat them.
In 1808, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the steps of the Salem, NJ, courthouse and publicly consumed a basket of tomatoes, before a rapt crowd of over 2000 people, endeavoring to prove once and for all that the tomato was not poisonous. Many in the crowd were sure he was committing public suicide. He survived.
But still, the tomato was slow to be adapted. According to Isabella Beeton, in her highly influential Book of Household Management, published in England in 1861, tomatoes were to be avoided at all costs. “The whole plant has a disagreeable odour, and its juice, subjected to the action of the fire, emits a vapour so powerful as to cause vertigo and vomiting.” She goes on to say that the tomato “has been found to contain a particular acid, a volatile oil, a brown, very fragrant extracto-resinous matter, a vegeto-mineral matter, muco-saccharine, some salts, and, in all probability, an alkaloid.”
Photographic portrait of Mrs Beeton, c.1860-5