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A History of the Tomato in Italy
by David Gentilcore

Columbia University Press, 2010

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 Italian cookery.


Author David Gentilcore, a historian specializing in the society and culture of Italy, has also penned Medical Charlatanism in Early Modern Italy and co-authored both Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe and Spaces, Objects and Identities in Early Modern Italian Medicine.

Tomatoes probably originated in the coastal highlands of South America, according to Gentilcore. "There is no evidence, however, that these small fruits were ever eaten there. Although we do not know exactly how, they migrated to Central America. There the wild tomatoes were domesticated by the Maya, who developed the larger, furrowed fruits."

The Aztecs were growing and harvesting tomatoes in southern Mexico when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés took down their empire in 1519-1521. Cortés conquered the Aztecs and tomatoes began their 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."

Gentilcore 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,

Today, 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 absorption.

History of the Tomato
Pomodoro Costoluto Genovese
Pomodoro Costoluto Genovese

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