Monday, April 18, 2011


Climbing a Wall of Worry

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 endure a lot of bad press.

"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."

A History of the Tomato in Italy
by David Gentilcore
Columbia University Press, 2010