THE ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATO SALAD
Tomatoes, today strongly associated with Italy, originated in the Andes of South America near present day Peru. By 500 BC, the Aztecs were cultivating tomatoes as a food crop in Mexico. The native fruit was small, like a cherry tomato, and probably yellow, not red. In Nahuatl, they were called tomatl, which the Spanish changed to tomate.
Most reports credit Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes with transporting the small golden globes to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1521. But it is possible that Christopher Columbus, a Genoese working for the Spanish monarchy, took them back as early as 1493. In 1544, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, included the tomato in an herbal; he described it as a new type of eggplant that could be cooked in oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Ten years later he named them in print as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples.”
By 1548, house records of Cosimo de’Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, confirm that a basket of tomatoes had “arrived safely.” But most elite Italians used them for ornamental, not culinary, purposes. Because their leaves were poisonous, and they resembled the deadly nightshade family of plants, Italians viewed them with suspicion. Some reports indicate that wealthy Italians were especially slow to accept tomatoes because they ate with pewter flatware and plates, which had a high lead content. Foods high in acid, like tomatoes, leeched lead from pewter into the food, causing lead poisoning and death. The poor, who used wooden utensils, didn’t have that problem, and some reports indicate that, until the 1800s, only the poor in Italy ate tomatoes.
The earliest cookbook with a tomato recipe was published in Naples in 1692; the recipe was titled “Tomato Sauce, Spanish Style,” and it is believed that many recipes in the book came from Spain. Cooked tomato sauces were accepted in Italy before raw tomatoes, which weren’t fully incorporated into Italian cuisine until the late 18th to early 19th centuries. Pizza reportedly was created by a Neapolitan restaurateur in the 1880s to celebrate a visit from Queen Margherita, the first Italian monarch since Napoleon conquered Italy. He made the pizza to represent the colors of Italy’s flag: the basil was green, the mozzarella white and tomatoes red. Margherita pizza remains a standard today.
Eventually, Italians learned to eat uncooked tomatoes. Fourteenth century writer Giovanni Boccaccio mentions pan lavato (washed bread) in the Decameron, his collection of stories told by a group of people living in a villa near Florence to escape the Black Death. Sixteenth century artist and poet Agnolo di Cosimo Tori, better known as Il Bronzino, wrote a poem that praised onions dressed with oil and vinegar and served on toast and, a page later, described a salad of onions, purslane and cucumbers. This is often interpreted as a description of panzanella. Eventually this peasant salad, intended to use up stale bread, also made use of an abundant harvest of tomatoes. And the colorfully patriotic combination of fresh basil, mozzarella and ripe, red tomatoes in insalata Caprese has become an Italian summer classic.
Ironically, tomatoes took the long way home; they arrived in the United States with European immigrants, not from Mexican neighbors to the south. And the Europeans brought their suspicions along as well. Americans did not fully accept that tomatoes were safe to eat raw until after tomato ketchup had become a staple in the late 19th century.