Death by Tomato (Blog)

Tomato Rainbow [Flickr CC via @photofarmer]
Tomato Rainbow [Flickr CC via @photofarmer]
The majority of Europeans feared just a simple tomato in the 1700s.  Aristocrats believed that eating the strange orb, nicknamed the “poison apple,” caused sickness and death.

No horror scene from Attack of the Killer Tomato took place.  Highly acidic tomatoes absorbed lead content from the pewter plates popular with the wealthy, but people did not make the connection at the time.  The humble tomato was falsely accused for fatalities by lead poisoning, earning a bad rap for centuries.

Tomatoes were foreign to Europeans, until Spanish conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés returned home with foreign treasures from their expeditions in Mesoamerica in the 16th century.

From Spain, the tomatl (first name from Nahuatl/Aztec language) traveled, when the Moors of Spain carried the seeds to Morocco. Later the plant reached Italy to the north, known there as pomi dei mori or apple of the Moors.

Killer Tomato [Flickr CC via @AndrewBaron]
Skepticism spread when an Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrea Matthioli – in one of the earliest known European written records of the tomato –  discovered the plant’s relationship to nightshade.  While it may be true that tomatoes belong to the nightshade family, potentially fatal and toxic plants. they do not share their siblings’ poisonous properties.

Adding to the confusion, Matthioli described the tomato nightshade plants as an aphrodisiac (or poison) mandrake. All of these characteristics described what he called  pomi dei mori by yet another name – pomi d’ori, meaning apples of gold – suggesting the varietal was of a golden color, like heirloom tomatoes today.

With such an aura of mystery and danger around these exotic golden apples, no wonder rich Europeans chose something else to eat.

Eventually tomatos found their way onto the wooden plates of the poor, unaffected by the lead poisoning problems, with recipes introduced by Spaniards around the Mediterranean. The Italian lower classes ate pizza and other dishes using the tomato, which was grown for food extensively in Italy and many European countries by the middle of the 18th century.

Thomas Jefferson, a progressive farmer with a one-thousand-foot-long vegetable garden, introduced the tomato to the U.S.A. after visiting Paris.  But it took some time to shake the fear of eating this plant in America. Italian immigrants in the New World in the late 1800s and early 1900s longed for dishes from the motherland.  Tomatoes also were used as food in New Orleans as early as 1812 through French influence.

America’s original “celebrity cook” Maria Parloa is credited with publishing the first recipe for a tomato chowder in her 1872 book The Appledore Cookbook.  Twenty five years later in 1897, Joseph Campbell made a fortune releasing condensed tomato soup, and the American public forgot all about their initial fears of the poison apple.



  • Popular in the 1920s, a “hot tomato” was slang for an attractive woman.
  • The tomato is the state vegetable of New Jersey, and both the state fruit and the state vegetable of Arkansas.
  • Globally, more than 1.5 billion tons of tomatoes are produced commercially every year.


Sources: Smithsonian, Planet Natural, Oxford Companion to Food


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