Those big red round tomatoes many cherish in their gardens today aren’t like their ancestors from the Andes region of South America. Early tomato plants probably produced small yellow/orange fruit on long rangy vines that were part of the diet of the native Aztec people. From South America, they are believed to have traveled to Central America and then brought to Europe as early as 1519 by Cortez.
At first, European people believed tomatoes to be poisonous because they belong to the nightshade family (and looked a lot like deadly nightshade) calling them ‘poison apples’, growing them strictly as ornamental vines. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the people of the southern Mediterranean region eventually embraced the tomato and it became a major part of their cuisine, changing the nickname to the pomme d’amour or ‘Love Apple’ claiming it was an aphrodisiac.
England and the colonies were much slower to take up eating the tomato. Thomas Jefferson lists planting tomatoes as early as 1781 (but only for decorative purposes at first). The southern states, with many Créole and Spanish immigrants, were starting to grow and add tomatoes to their cuisine as early as 1812. Legend has it that Colonel Robert Johnson sat on the steps of the Salem New Jersey courthouse in the fall of 1820 and consumed a basket full of tomatoes to prove they were edible.
In 1870, after many years of breeding and saving seed from his own garden, Alexander W. Livingston introduced the “Paragon Tomato”; the first stabilized red round tomato. Most of our garden tomatoes today can trace their ancestry to this fine old variety.
Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable? Botanically they are considered a berry, technically a fruit and remain classified as such. But in 1893, the US Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes are a vegetable and therefore should be taxed accordingly. Is it pronounced tomayto or tomahto? The word ‘tomato’ is a variation of the word ‘tomatl’ in the Nahuatl language; believed to mean ‘swelling fruit with a navel’.
Fun Facts: Record setting tomatoes
• Longest Vine: 65 feet
• Largest Single Fruit: 9 pounds 10.4 ounces
• Largest Number of Pounds from One Plant: 1151.84 pounds (ok – this was at Walt Disney World in Florida – in a greenhouse – on a ‘tree’ trellis!)