Today, tomatoes are ubiquitous, seen growing in backyards and on decks, sold daily at farmers’ markets and grocery stores, and used for easy weeknight dinners and haute cuisine at some of the world’s finest restaurants. But tomatoes weren’t always one of the most used ingredients in recipes worldwide. As they made their way around the globe, they were often the stuff of myth and fear.
While the exact origins of the tomato are somewhat murky, it’s likely to have come from the coastal highlands of western South America, where wild tomato plants can still be found. What we know for sure is that by the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived in Central America, Aztecs in what is now southern Mexico were already cultivating the plant. Spanish accounts note that the Aztecs used it to make a sauce, mixing it with chiles and ground squash seeds and serving it with fish, shellfish, venison, and other meats. The Aztecs called this plant the xitomatl, perhaps because of its similarity to a small sour-tasting fruit they ate known as the tomatl—the same Nahuatl word from which we get the modern-day English word “tomato.”
After coming into contact with the tomato, the Spanish brought seeds and plants with them back to Europe and to their other colonies around the world. In Spain and Italy, tomatoes grew easily and were known as “love apples,” perhaps because they looked similar to the fruit of the mandrake, which was thought to be an aphrodisiac. In Europe, tomatoes were eaten as we do today with cucumbers or boiled with vinegar, salt, pepper, and oil.
As historian Andrew F. Smith explains, tomatoes appeared in colonial America some time later. The first reference to tomatoes in colonial America can be found in a book on plants written by English herbalist William Salmon in the early 18th century. Visiting the colonies, Salmon noted that tomatoes were being cultivated in the Carolinas. There are a number of theories on how they got there. Smith says that there were likely several paths, as they might have been brought by Spanish, French, or Caribbean settlers. It’s also possible that enslaved Africans might have introduced tomatoes to the region, as they were responsible for the cooking on Southern plantations.
But while the tomato was grown in some parts of the colonies, it took Americans a while to embrace the tomato as a tasty food source. It didn’t become popular until the 19th century, in part because tomatoes were believed by some to be poisonous. As Smith explains, tomatoes were transformed in the American psyche from lethal to wholesome in part due to the entrepreneurial efforts of Dr. John Cook Bennett, who claimed tomatoes were a healthy food source that could be used to treat ailments such as diarrhea. He began selling “tomato pills” that were marketed to cure even more ills, including inflammation, pleurisy, and rheumatism. The secret, however, was that these pills contained little, if any, tomato.
Americans began to flock to tomatoes for their health benefits and soon overcame their fears. The fruit began popping up in American markets, in restaurants, and in home cookbooks. The first known cookbook to include a variety of tomato recipes—17 in all—was the second edition of The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph in 1824. It included recipes for scalloped baked tomatoes, soup, and even marmalade. Other recipes from texts published later in the century included simple sauces; one added Madeira and suggested it accompany cold meats. Tomatoes were used in soups, sauces, salads, main courses, and side dishes. They were stewed, made into ketchup, and served in tomato pie.
The mid-19th century saw the dawn of “tomato mania,” with Americans increasingly growing the fruits in their gardens and canning them to eat quickly and cheaply. The American recipes were influenced by the Spanish, Italians, and French who had embraced the tomato years before. Tomatoes were incorporated into omelets and combined with other vegetables, namely okra in the southeastern United States, and they were even used to make alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine.
Contributing to the growing popularity of tomatoes during this period were technological innovations that made commercially processed canned tomatoes available to consumers year-round. It was the entrance of Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup into the food market in 1869 that would popularize the mass production of various canned tomato formats and, consequently, sales of canned tomatoes. By the 20th century, Americans weren’t just eating fresh tomatoes and including them in their recipes for soups and sauces—they were using canned tomatoes to make meals. Canned food was shelf-stable, required no special storage, and had no utility bill associated with making it.
By 2018, the tomato market—including both fresh and processed varieties—was estimated to be worth $3.8 billion, according to data from the Produce Market Guide, making tomatoes one of the most consumed produce in America, second only to potatoes. It’s estimated that every American consumes almost 21 pounds of tomatoes each year—namely, experts say, because we love tomatoes in the sauces we pair with our favorite pastas. Clearly, the tomato has taken hold, and it continues to hold sway in American kitchens today.