In Chapter 1, Irma’s father speaks scornfully of Americans’ habit of eating tomatoes. In fact, the tomato’s sanctified place on our tables came through a long trail of conquest, mis-information and tax shenanigans. I’ve gleaned some facts of that journey.
1. The genetic homeland of the tomato is the highlands of Peru, where it was a perennial green fruit, cultivated since about 700 C.E.
2. Our tomato moved north to Mexico, where Cortes celebrated his conquest of Tenochitlan in 1521 with a golden version of our hero. From this variety comes the modern Italian term, “pomodoro” (lit. “golden apple”).
3. In the late 1500s, English botanist, barber and surgeon John Gerard knew that Spaniards and Italians regularly ingested tomatoes but declared them quite poisonous for Englishmen, presumably because of their special, special GI tracts.
4. Even in Italy, though, many tomatoes appeared on the table only as decoration. In Florence of the 1700 and 1800s, the tomatoes were considered poison — for the rich. Rich people ate on pricey pewter with high lead content. Acid foods like the tomato leached out the lead, causing lead poisoning. The poor, eating on wooden trenchers, ate tomatoes with impunity.
5. When tomatoes entered Persia in 1840 via Turkey and Armenia, they were known as “Armenian eggplants.”
6. The classic pizza margarita, created in the late 1880s in Naples, was named for Queen Margarita. Its ingredients, tomato, mozzarella, and basil, celebrated the colors of the new Italian flag.
7. Back in the U.S., the tomato was classified as a fruit to avoid veggie taxes, but the Supreme Court ruled for the tomato/vegetable in the late 1800s and the fruit times so ended.
8. There are now 7500 varieties of tomato. Some are golden, like those that Cortes first savored.