In history class, you probably learned that the discovery of the “New World” revolutionized Europe’s economy. But it also transformed Europe’s diet and health — with the influx of new, highly nutritious crops from the Americas.
Before that time, Europeans had just 16 different plant crops. So, the introduction of these new foods greatly improved nutritional diversity and life expectancy in Europe — as well as colonial and early America.
We call this historical development the “Columbian Exchange,” which I thought would be an appropriate topic to revisit on this Columbus Day. And what better crop to discuss than the all-important tomato.
Tomatoes slow to gain acceptance in Europe
Most people associate the tomato with Italy. But it actually originated in Meso America thousands of years ago.
It first grew wild in a vast area that now comprises Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. But the people of Central and South America began to cultivate it as a food source. Its popularity quickly spread to an even larger area, which extended as far north as the Central Valley of modern-day Mexico.
The native peoples served tomatoes in both their daily cooking as well as important ceremonial meals. They stewed them in pots with turkey or fish, peppers, and pumpkin.
The earliest written record of the tomato dates back to the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico in the early 1500s. Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagun — best known for his participation in the Catholic evangelization of Mexico — mentioned the tomato as an ingredient in a sauce sold in the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). The sauce consisted of tomatl (tomato), pepitas (pumpkin seeds), aji (hot red pepper), and chiles verdes (hot green peppers).
Many people think Columbus brought tomatoes back to Spain after one of his voyages to America. But really, Spanish Conquistadores found them in Mexico (which Columbus never saw) and brought them back to Europe.
Interestingly, the Spanish didn’t initially use the tomato as a food source. Perhaps because of its relation to the deadly European nightshade plant, belladonna. Instead, they considered it more of a medicinal or magical plant. In fact, in Spanish folklore, medicine men used the tomato as a “cure” for various ailments. They also used it for magical potions and even as an aphrodisiac.
The tomato makes its debut in European cooking
In the 16th century, Pietro Andrea Mattioli — an Italian herbalist, physician, and botanist — first mentioned use of the tomato as a food source. In fact, he detailed one of his favorite uses for the tomato: cooking it in a paella (pot) with salt, black pepper, oil, and garlic.
Mattioli first called the tomato by the name pomo d’oro or “golden apple.” That name stuck in Italian. But the word for tomato in Spanish, French, German, and English derives from the original tomatl, given by the Nahuatl Indians of Mexico.
The Spanish also introduced the tomato plant to their southern Italian territories, but they still weren’t widely used in Italian cooking for at least another century.
Then, in 1705, Francesco Guadentio, lay-provisioner for the community of Jesuits in Rome, wrote down the first known Italian recipe for cooking tomatoes. And by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, leading Italian chefs endorsed the tomato as a delicacy.
By 1789, tomatoes also reached revolutionary Paris — which was the culinary capital of Europe at the time. (I suppose they arrived just in time for the Parisian crowds to throw them at victims in trundle carts being taken to the guillotines.)
Thomas Jefferson also came to know and enjoy the tomato during his time in revolutionary France as Ambassador of the new United States. When he returned home to Monticello, he brought tomato seeds with him to cultivate.
The tomato also continued to gain popularity among Italian chefs. In Sicily, they began to add sliced tomatoes to boiling pasta water. In Campania, the original home of tomato sauce, large-scale cultivation finally got under way.
Industrialization boosts the tomatoes’ popularity in the U.S.
By the 19th century, with the rise of industrial canning, tomatoes really became a common food. And in 1835, William Underwood opened the first industrial canning factory in Boston. Out of this factory came the first canned tomato sauce (and Underwood canned hams).
So, by the mid-19th century, the tomato had come full circle back to America. Just in time for the millions of Italian immigrants arriving on American shores to find a familiar food from “home.”
One hundred years later, in 1985, a second-generation Italian-American scientist helped the tomato achieve even higher health status.
I’m actually referring to myself.
I helped conduct the research that first revealed tomatoes as an abundant source of lycopene, a nutrient critical for prostate health.
Since then, I’ve continued to research many effective, natural, and drug-free ways to protect your prostate. And I’m now beginning to compile these important findings into an online learning protocol, which I plan to release to you later this year. So, stay tuned right here for all the exciting details — I share everything first with my loyal readers.
Of course, it may be getting a little too late in the season in some parts of the country to enjoy tomatoes straight off the vine. But you can still make a delicious, nutritious tomato sauce. I recommend using Pomi brand tomatoes, which come in a “tetrapak” (paperboard packaging similar to milk cartons).
Glass bottles and jars of tomato sauce are also fine. Especially if you’ve canned them yourself. But be sure to avoid using metal cans of tomatoes as they often contain a harmful toxin linked to chromosomal damage and endocrine disorders.
However you choose to buy them, make a point to add plenty of tomatoes to your dishes when cooking this fall.