The wild, pea sized ancestors of the modern tomato were native to western South America, where the Aztecs and other peoples of Mesoamerica domesticated them for use in cooking. Franciscan friar and missionary priest Bernadino de Sahagun’s 16th century Florentine Codex, which documented Mesoamerican life in colonial New Spain, described the “large tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, large serpent tomatoes and nipple-shaped tomatoes” available in the Aztec markets of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), as well as the wide variety of sauces made from them. Spanish explorers brought tomatoes to Europe where fear that they were poisonous, like their botanical relative nightshade, caused them initially to be grown only as ornamental plants (for more tomato history see THE ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATO SALAD, an introduction to tomato salads on this site).
Tomatoes were first recorded in British North America by herbalist William Salmon in 1710, when he found them in what is now South Carolina. It is not clear when they were first brought to America, possibly by European colonists, but it is known that Thomas Jefferson ate tomatoes in Paris and sent seeds back to Monticello, his Virginia estate. Once convinced that the fruit was safe to eat, American breeders proceeded to develop numerous varieties for both home and commercial use.
By 1937 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s yearbook declared that “half of the major varieties” were the result of the abilities of a single breeder, Alexander W. Livingston, to “evaluate and perpetuate superior material in the tomato.” Livingston described his aim as to grow tomatoes smooth in contour, uniform in size and sweet in flavor. Because tomatoes are a sun loving crop, states in the Sun Belt, notably Florida and California, became major producers.
At least one of Livingston’s goals, to grow tomatoes sweet in flavor, was eventually replaced by a commercial goal to grow tomatoes that ripen uniformly red, without the green ring around the stem typical of varieties that aren’t cross bred. The new varieties that resulted from cross breeding produced less sugar while ripening, and as a result were less sweet and tasty.
Breeders also cross bred for greater yield, longer shelf life, larger size, and resistance to environmental challenges and disease. The University of California at Davis even attempted to engineer square tomatoes that would survive mechanical harvesting with less bruising and fit snugly into packaging for transport; to travel well, normal round tomatoes had to be treated like eggs. All of these commercially directed “scientific improvements” on the Mesoamerican originals eventually resulted in the vapid, tasteless tomatoes we find too often in supermarkets today.