Texas Cooperative Extension,
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

April 2004

As American As Tomatoes

by Carol Cammack, CEA Horticulture,
Harris County, TX


The tomato has traveled great distances over many centuries to enjoy the popularity it experiences today. The tomato is native to the Andes of Peru where it first grew as a bright red, marble sized, cherry-type tomato. From Peru, the tomato migrated through South America north to Mexico. In Mexico, the tomatl, as it was called, was domesticated through selection for larger and more diverse fruits. The wanderings of the tomato ceased for many centuries after its Pre-Columbian arrival in Mexico. There is no evidence the Native American Indians were acquainted with the tomato until after the arrival of the early Spanish explorers.

In the mid-sixteenth century, the tomato traveled to Europe with the Spanish explorers. The Spanish were the first Europeans to cultivate the tomato, but as it traveled north and east through Europe the tomato was greeted with mixed emotions. The French called it the "Apple of Love," the Germans proclaimed it to be the "Apple of Paradise" and upon arrival in Italy, it was dubbed "Pomodoro" or golden apple. The Italians even believed heart-shaped tomatoes to be an aphrodisiac. The English, however, were certain the tomato was poisonous in spite of its beautiful red color. Their reasoning included many factors from its membership in the nightshade family, to the puncency of its leaves to plain superstition. The fear of the tomato persisted for many years, even among the American Colonists.

By the later 1700's some home gardeners like Thomas Jefferson were raising tomatoes in their gardens, but most people still ignored them or regarded them with fear. By 1812 the tomatoes had become a common enhancement in the Creole gumbos and jambalayas of the South. In other areas of the country, people like Colonel Robert Johnson were trying to persuade the wary public that the tomato would not kill them. In 1820, Colonel Johnson stood on the steps of the Salem, New Jersey courthouse and ate a raw tomato! Reportedly, the crowd was shocked when the Colonel didn't drop dead on the spot. By 1850, the tomato had made its way into most urban markets. Farmers and home gardeners alike were growing tomatoes. Stil, many cookbooks proclaimed that the tomato should be cooked for at least three hours or else it would "not lose its raw taste."

The tomato and botany alike suffered a minor setback in the late 1800s. The Tariff Act of 1883 placed a 10% tax on "vegetables in their natural state" but allowed fruits "green, ripened or dried" to enter the country fax-free. The Collector of Customs at the Port of New York declared the tomato to be a vegetable and therefore subject to taxation. The importers sued, arguing correctly that the tomato is botanically a fruit. In 1893, the Supreme Court ruled that regardless of its botanical nature the tomato is a vegetable.

Late into the 19th Century, both English and American scientists believed the tomato caused cancer. Eventually the theory was disproved and recently the cancer fighting properties of the tomato have become more widely known. Studies show that increased levels of lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatos, are correlated with a decreased risk for cancer in the digestive tract, cervix, prostate and pancreas of humans. The tomato is nature's richest source of lycopene, but it is also found in watermelons and pink grapefruits.

After traveling for over 1000 years and through three continents, the tomato has come to be the most important processed vegetable in America. The average American consumes over 23 pounds of processed tomatoes each year. Vine ripened and processed tomatoes are highest in potassium, vitamins A and C, fiber, lycopene and even protein. After the potato, tomatoes contribute the greatest amount of nutrients to the American diet.