You say tom-ay-toh, I say tom-ah-toh. Some used to say aphrodisiac, while others said poison. Now we say it’s a food essential to pizza, ketchup, BLTs and more. Toddlers live off the stuff, but once upon a time people were afraid to eat it. This is the bizarre story of the tomato, the fruit (yes, it’s a fruit from a botanical standpoint, though legally a vegetable) that sailed across the ocean and onto the table in every burger joint across America.
In South America, where the tomato was native, the Aztecs coined the term "tomatl," which is the origin of what we call it today. Myth says that the Aztecs served tomatoes at their human sacrifices, but that fact is still up for debate. Human flesh with sauce sounds downright awful, anyway.
When the Spanish colonized the Americas in the 16th century, they changed the word to tomate and brought the berry (yes, it is a berry!) back to Europe with them. The Spanish immediately incorporated tomatoes into their cuisine. Meanwhile, Northern Europeans, especially the French, were very paranoid because they knew the tomato was part of the deadly nightshade family, which can be poisonous. In fact, the leaves and roots are toxic in large doses, but the fruit is generally safe (though it does contain a small amount of alkaloid tomatine).
Italians called this new food “pomodoro,” which translates to “golden apple,” which some think is because the first tomatoes in Italy were yellow. Italian herbalist Pietro Mattioli said they were mandrakes, an ancient food thought to be aphrodisiacs. In the Bible, mandrakes were used to make love potions; they were lumped in with eggplants, also nightshades and assumed poisonous, yet tempting, like a forbidden fruit. The French called them love apples (pomme d’amour), which could also be a mis-translation of eggplants -- those were called pomme d’Moors, as they were prized in Arabic cuisine.
In 17th century Naples, a cookbook was written using Spanish recipes, and tomatoes became accepted into Italian cuisine. In Britain, they weren't widely consumed until the 18th century.
The tomato finally came back to the colonies in the early 1700s, possibly via the Caribbean. Thomas Jefferson, who lived in France for many years, raised them on his farm in Monticello. People were still afraid they were poisonous in the late 1700s, so legend has it that Jefferson walked down the street munching on one, making them a trendy curiosity. He even served them at the President’s House in 1806. Word of how delicious they were slowly spread over the next century.
In 1897, Campbell Soup Company put tomatoes in a canned, condensed soup, and a rainy day staple was born. Thousands of varieties of the tomato plant now exist, and heirloom varieties are especially prized. Tomatoes are not only popular in America, but are a primary ingredient in the cuisines of Italy, Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and even Southeast Asia.
So the next time you dip your fries in ketchup, think of it as a noble act. How very far the tomato had to come to get to your burger; It is a true legend!
TL;DR: Tomatoes are an everyday food for us, but for a time people either thought they were poisonous or a love potion ingredient. Luckily, we figured out the truth and pizza has never been the same.