History of the Tomato in Italy
University Press, 2010
by David Gentilcore
From its introduction from the New World in the mid-sixteenth century
to its prominence in Italian cuisine 300 years later, the tomato as a
culinary staple in southern Europe has long and viny history. This book
recounts how changes in social values, beliefs and economic condition
allowed the fruit to become accepted and eventually dominate
and harvesting tomatoes in southern Mexico when the Spanish
conquistador Hernán Cortés took down their empire
1519-1521. Cortés conquered the Aztecs and tomatoes began
slow and steady infiltration into European cuisine. But first they had to climb a steep wall of worry.
"The tomato's association with the eggplant and nightshade certainly
did it no favors," Gentilcore points out. Pietro Antonio Michiel, a
prominent 16th century Venetian botanist, noted that if eggplants are
"harmful to the head, generating melancholic humors, cankers, leprosy,
oppilations, long-lasting fevers and sickly color," then tomatoes must
certainly be "dangerous and harmful" and their odor alone could bring
about "eye diseases and headaches."
The nightshade family to which tomatoes belonged also included plants
like "henbane, belladonna, and mandrake, all of which were though to
have magical and hallucinatory powers."
does more than track the history of the tomato; he describes Europe's
changing dietary habits and attitudes from the late Rensaissance to the
modern day and explains how this set the tables for a culinary invasion.
During the mid-17th century new medical and scientific notions helped
shift dietary attitudes enough that tomatoes were no longer
perceived a health risk. "The tomato's reputation was changing,
although it is difficult to pinpoint the time of this change and find
details about how tomatoes were being eaten," Gentilcore explains. But
by the 19th century, tomatoes were being grown and eaten throughout
society in Italy as well as France,
of course, tomatoes are a multi-billion-dollar commodity in Italy and
around the world, used both fresh and preserved in salads and sauces,
main dishes and appetizers. The vegetable once feared by Europeans
is now lauded for its anti-oxididants and praised as a crucial element in a healthy "Mediterranean Diet."
All of the tomato plant, with
the fortunate exception of the fruit, may be toxic, at least
when eaten raw, because of the presence of an alkaloid called tomatine,
also found in unripe tomatoes.
Today's tomato is a medical "superfood." Even the plant's leaves --
whose smell repulsed the first botanists and which have been long
regarded as toxic because of their effects on pests -- may be good for
us, as the tomatine they contain apparently reduces cholesterol
Pomodoro Costoluto Genovese