Reading time: 1.5 minutes, skimmable
Takeaway: Tomatoes originated in South America, and have an interesting history; most people in the USA didn’t start eating them till the 1900s for fear of poisoning. Read on for a bit of history, nutrition info, and random facts.
Growing up, I preferred tomatoes in two forms: ketchup and Pace Picante sauce. Should one of those slimy seeds defile the lettuce in my salad, the entire thing got passed to my mother. I’ve evolved since then and like a good ‘mater sandwich as much as the next Southerner (sharp cheddar and extra mayo, please).
As many of you know, tomatoes technically are a fruit since botanists consider what develops from a flower the fruit (it also contains the seeds). With this definition, cucumbers, corn kernels, wheat, etc., are all fruits, but how we use them and how sweet they are is why we non-botanists usually consider these vegetables (or grains, in the latter cases).
For those of us that grew up hearing them called ‘maters, you might find it entertaining to know they come from the same place as ‘taters, that is, South America, up in the Andes near what we now know as Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Starting out wild, they were thought to have been brought northward only in the last two thousand years or so, and even then, they never achieved the god status of maize (corn), another South American crop.
Once they left the continent, by way of Spanish conquistador most likely, they were slow to catch on in Europe. Italians were the first Europeans to grow tomatoes and eat them, sometime in the second half of the 16th century. Hard to imagine Italy without spaghetti sauce and pizza margherita!
Back stateside with the tomato, Thomas Jefferson was not only a political revolutionary, but a gardening one as well: he was among the first to cultivate a tomato vine in the United States back in 1781. For a number of reasons, including that tomatoes belong to the nightshade family and have a strong odor, they were thought to be poisonous and didn’t catch on with North Americans till sometime in the 1900s. Perhaps all those Italian immigrants helped pave the way for the tomato? You’ll find even more history here.
Tomatoes are noted to be rich in lycopene, a heart healthy antioxidant. They also have high amounts of vitamins A and C and the minerals calcium and potassium.
Factoids to annoy (or impress) your friends:
- Tomatoes are the state vegetable of New Jersey.
- World’s largest producers are China, the U.S.A. and India
- A website for the “La Tomatina” festival in Bunol, Spain, (the one each August where tens of thousands of people throw thousands of kilos of the fruit) recommends you not ripping other people’s t-shirts open. Noted.
Next time, how they grow, and why you need to keep your tomatoes out of your refrigerator veggie drawer.