Tomatoes Culinary History
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Genetic studies show that the Tomatoes’ forbearer was a herbaceous green plant with small green fruit that was a native of early Peru. One of its cultivars, a Tomato plant with a small, yellow fruit (think of a yellow Cherry Tomato), was transported, in pre-history, to Mexico, where by 500 B.C. it was farmed by Mesoamerican civilizations. The Aztecs called the fruit xitomatl which meant “plump thing with a navel.” Our modern name for it, “tomato,” comes from another Mesoamerican peoples, the Nahuatls, who called it “the swelling fruit” or “tomatl” in their language.  

Cortés conquest of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtítlan (modern Mexico City) in 1521 is the acknowledged point of European contact with Tomatoes. It was the Spanish colonial system, which spanned most of the globe that helped spread Tomatoes; first to the Carribean, then to the Phillipines and eventually Asia and Europe. By 1544, Tomatoes, probably a yellow variety since they were dubbed Golden Apples or “Pomo d’Oro” by Italian Pietro Andrea Mattioli, were being described in scientific papers and “herbals.”

The Tomato grew easily in sunny Mediterranean climates and Tomatoes were farmed by the 1540’s and gradually became part of the diet in Spain and Italy in the 1600’s. The first published Tomato recipes were in a cook book published in Naples in 1692 mainly derived from Spanish dishes. The adoption was spotty and certain Mediterranean areas only used Tomatoes as decoration until well into the early 1700’s.

The Tomato’s northern migration headed up into France, where the French put their spin on it attributing aphrodisiac properties to the Tomato and calling them, “pomme d'amour,” or "love apples.” Tomatoes then crossed the channel to England, where they were a niche curiosity for cultivators and herbalists. John Gerard, a cultivator who wrote about Tomatoes in his 1597 “Herbal,” knew that Tomatoes were eaten in Italy and Spain but still thought, and wrote, that they were poisonous (the leaves are poisonous). He was likely suspicious of the Nightshade family and the shining bright fruit. Gerard’s work swayed the British Empire and its colonies, which considered Tomatoes, unfit for consumption, if not exactly poisonous, for a generation.

As surprising as it may be to us, Tomatoes do contain low levels of poisonous Tomatine (less as they ripen), but as you can likely attest from your own diet and ingestion of Tomatoes they are not generally dangerous if consumed ripe and in reasonable quantities. Another reason for the poisonous reputation was that foods with high acid content, like Tomatoes, caused the lead in Pewter to leach out which lead to poisoning: lead poisoning. The Tomato was framed for about 400 years. The leaves are highly alkaline and still rightly considered dangerous. People have died from drinking Tomato leaf tea. Avoid the consuming the leaves.

But by the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopædia Britannica stated the tomato was "in daily use" in soups, broths, and as a garnish.

Once sold on the Tomato, the British did some Tomato distribution of their own. British outposts in the Middle East were cooking Tomatoes in dishes by 1820 to 1840. Traded further afield to Armenia and beyond, Tomatoes reached Iran, where they were initially called “Armenian Eggplant” and are today called “Foreign Plum” (foreign meaning European) in the local tongue.

The history of the Tomato’s travels to North American is less clear. Though Thomas Jefferson is frequently credited with importing Tomato seeds from Paris where he enjoyed eating them in French cuisine, it is unlikely that Jefferson is the sole source. Tomatoes had already been spotted, as early as 1710 in North American by herbalist William Salmon who sighted and wrote about Tomato plants growing in South Carolina. Given Salmon’s 1710 date, Tomatoes were most likely introduced through trade with the Spanish Caribbean possessions but their specific path to the U.S. is not well documented. By the mid 1700’s Tomatoes were grown on Carolina plantations, though some may still have considered them poisonous and they were raised mostly as ornamental plants.

Even up until the end of the eighteenth century, doctors warned against eating tomatoes. Medical wisdom feared that Tomatoes caused not only appendicitis but also stomach cancer from tomato skins sticking to the stomach lining. 

That all changed in America when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey, a Tomato fan since eating some abroad in 1808, who had been offering a prize for the largest specimen grown, staged a spectacle. At a time when the general American public considered the Tomato poisonous and only an ornamental plant, Colonel Johnson declared his intention to eat a basket of Tomatoes on the Salem New Jersey courthouse steps on September 26, 1820. A morbid crowd of more than 2,000 gathered to watch him die and the local volunteer firefighters played a mournful tune as Johnson bit into the first juicy, Jersey-fresh Tomato.  Surprising the crowd, but not us, Johnson lived and suffered no ill effects clearing the way for America’s love affair with the Tomato.

By 1842, farm journals of the time were touting the tomato as the latest craze and those who eschewed it as "objects of pity." A popular presentation was Tomato Soup and the first written recipe is credited to Maria Parloa for Tomato Chowder in her 1872 cook book, The Appledore Cook Book.

Broad Tomato consumption in America was about to take off, as a few trends like the Industrial Revolution (began 1820) converged at the end of the 19th Century to solve the problems of seasonality and food preservation with refinement.

Abraham Anderson began his career as a tinsmith in Newark, NJ. He also fabricated early refrigerators but then in 1862 he founded a small cannery (tin cans) in Camden, NJ. Seven years later he partnered with Joseph Campbell, who was raised on a farm and had worked as a purchasing agent for a produce wholesaler. Can you see where we are heading? Anderson knew production and Campbell knew vegetables.

Three iconic food companies were born in 1869 in the fertile New Jersey / Pennsylvania area. Welch’s in Vineland, NJ, H.J. Heinz in Sharpsburg, PA and Anderson & Campbell in Camden, NJ. In those days, New Jersey really was a garden state and for a while Camden, a railroad hub, became a boom town as farmers waited in 9 mile lines to deliver produce to the growing factory that began feeding America with the new invention of canned food or Canning, which both preserved it and allowed an as yet unknown to man, unseasonal variety in diet. 

As folks moved to the industrializing cities from the farms, they had to be fed in a cost effective and convenient way, if that food also had “flair” so much the better. In the 1870’s Campbell bought out Anderson and brought on new partners, including Arthur Dorrance in 1882. They offered a wide selection of canned and preserved products including jams & jellies, Ketchups and canned fruits and vegetables (including canned Beefsteak Tomatoes which had been introduced in 1850), under the eventual name in 1891 of The Joseph Campbell Preserve Company.

Tomaoto consumption was climbing and two of Campbell’s best sellers were their tomato based ketchup (originally ketchup was a fish sauce) and their canned beefsteak tomato; the company promised a tomato in every can. To reduce waste and maximize the crop of Jersey tomatoes, Joseph Campbell came out with a ready-to-eat, not condensed Beefsteak Tomato soup in 1895. It would take two more years, Joseph Campbell’s retirement and Arthur Dorrance’s ascension before the tomato really rocketed into America’s kitchens.

Arthur Dorrance succeeded Campbell and in 1897, reluctantly hired his nephew Dr. John Thompson Dorrance, a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Gottingen, Germany. While in Europe, John Dorrance had enjoyed fine dining—and become used to a soup course with his meals. When John Dorrance was hired, Campbell’ soup offering was extremely limited. Dorrance quickly integrated his appreciation for soup with his organic chemistry degree and his business opportunity and developed the concept for condensed canned soups, which had all the flavor but not the weight of ready-to-eat soups. Dorrance’s invention reduced the shippable weight of the product but not its value, since water was plentiful. The cost of a can of soup dropped to 10 cents from 30 cents. The soups came to market in 1898 with 5 flavors that followed the preparations of classic French cuisine: Tomato, Consommé, Vegetable, Chicken and Oxtail. With advertizing Campbell’s soups would take the country by storm, improving the refinement of the American palate with a European sensibility and putting the tomato squarely on the American plate. By the time Dorrance was named president of Campbell’s in 1914, he knew that what he had created was more than just soup; he had found the perfect balance of American and European culinary offerings.