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Tomatoes-art – 10/15/06

 

"Love, Death or Mere Curiosity? The Tomato in Renaissance Europe" by Mistress Renata Kestryl of Highwynds

 

NOTE: See also the files: 16C-Tomato-art, tomato-hist-art, tomatoes-msg, eggplant-msg, salads-msg, lettuce-msg, vegetables-msg, cucumbers-msg, peppers-msg, olives-msg.

 

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NOTICE -

 

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Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

 

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

 

               Thank you,

                   Mark S. Harris

                   AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                   stefan at florilegium.org                                         

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Love, Death or Mere Curiosity?

The Tomato in Renaissance Europe

by Renata Kestryl of Highwynds, OP

 

Culinary history is the Stuff of Legends. And Myths. And Rumors.

      When the SCA was formed in 1966 certain ideas about Medieval and Renaissance food were then common in food scholarship. The notion that meat was served highly spiced to cover up the fact that it was often rotten was one of the most interesting of these, as was the idea that medieval kitchens were highly unsanitary and food poisoning was a common cause of death. Our fledgling food re-creationists absorbed these ideas as they used what documentation was then available to plan and execute their feasts.

 

      Almost 40 years of research (some of which, I am proud to say, by US!) has been done since our early beginnings and many of these ideas, including the three mentioned above, have been proven false. Unfortunately, these ideas live on as rumors that often refuse to die easily.

 

      One of the most prevalent food myths perpetuated in the SCA today is that, in Medieval and Renaissance times, tomatoes were considered to be poisonous. [1] Tomatoes Were Evil, we then thought, at least to those who lived in the period we were trying to re-create. After all, Everyone Knew that the tomato is a new-fangled (and hence suspicious) New World fruit [2] and back then we were all playing in the Olde Worlde.

 

      Let’s do a little math here. Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Subtract that from the official end of our time period (1600) [3] and one gets a period of 108 years during which the New World was crawling with European explorers. In that time, did not one of these jolly tars or conquistadors recognize the inherent deliciousness of the tomato?

 

      The answer is yes. Tomatoes did make their way to Europe prior to 1600 C.E., and during that time a great many Europeans – but not everyone – did indeed think they were poisonous.

 

The Tomato Story

 

The origins of the tomato plant remained shrouded in mystery, believe it or not, until the 2nd half of the 20th century. At that time the ancestral plant was found growing wild in the coastal areas of Peru. Apparently the pretty berries growing on the hillsides escaped the notice of the indigenous people, because when Europeans came to South America they did not find any culture that ate tomatoes.

 

By the 16th century tomatoes had somehow made their way to Central America, and it was there that Hernan Cortez found them when he arrived in 1519 to conquer Mexico [4]. The Aztecs were able to cultivate tomatoes easily because something amazing had happened to them (the tomatoes) since leaving Peru.

 

At some point during the tomato’s journey from Peru to Mexico tomato plants became self-pollinating. Botanically speaking, this means that any given tomato flower can be fertilized with its own pollen. This is a tremendous advantage when it comes to cultivating a plant, because the farmer does not need to provide a pollinator, like a bee, to insure a crop and a single tomato seed can grow and produce fruit by itself [5]. The resulting plants are virtual clones of the original plant.

 

A second mutation also occurred around the same time. The original tomato plant produced a small, round two-chambered berry. The mutation produced a large, lumpy, multi-chambered fruit and it was this plant that the Aztecs cultivated. Today’s round multi-chambered tomato is a cross between these two original strains.[6]

 

The Aztecs readily adopted this new visitor to their land (I refer to the tomatoes, not necessarily Cortez, although it seems that tomatoes had not arrived much ahead of the Spanish) because it resembled one of their indigenous food plants, called tomatl. This small green fruit, which does resemble a tomato wrapped in a papery skin, is known today as the tomatillo. The Aztecs called their new fruit xitomatl, which means “big tomatl.” (I am not making this up.)

 

Catholic priests accompanying the conquistadors recorded the lifestyles of Meso-American peoples during the conquest and there are references to tomatoes [7] in their accounts. Joseph de Acosta noted that tomatoes were “cold and very wholesome” and “full of juice, which gives a good taste to sauce, and they are good to eat.” [8] It was also noted that the Aztecs mixed their tomatoes with chilies for a spicy sauce. It was these clerics who carried the tomato, in the form of seeds, back to their monastery gardens where they discovered that the tomato was deliciously compatible with some of the other staples of Spanish cuisine, especially garlic, onions, and olive oil.

 

Love

 

New World plants posed classification problems for 16th century European herbalists. The system they used had been handed down from ancient Greek and Roman naturalists and, naturally, only covered those plants that were known at the time. After the discovery of the New World, it apparently didn’t occur to the herbalists that the tried and true system would not work for the new plant species that were being brought back to Europe. It took decades, if not centuries, for them to realize their error and by that time the misclassifications were causing no end of problems.

 

Our tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum (“edible wolfpeach”), is one of these casualties.

 

From Spain the tomato traveled to Italy, where it came to the attention of herbalist Pietro Andrae Mattiolli. His work Di pedanio Dioscoride anazarbeo libri cinque della historia, published in 1544 [9] has the first European reference to tomatoes, which he calls mala aurea (“golden apples.”) This would seem to imply that there was a yellow tomato (the modern Italian word for tomato is pomadoro which also means “golden apple”) as well as a red one. Matthioli classified the tomato in the same family as mandrake and nightshade [10], which may account for both its aphrodisiac and poisonous reputations.

 

Because it was thought by some that these were the golden apples that Melanion (also known as Hippomenes) has tossed to Atalanta, which slowed her down enough for him to win that mythic footrace and marry her, tomatoes quickly got the reputation as a aphrodisiac. The many seeds in a tomato probably also led to this conclusion, as it had with the pomegranate. There was a strong trend in 16th century food lore that “you are what you eat,” so eating a fruit with many seeds increased fertility and virility. The supposed relationship of the tomato to mandrake, a plant steeped in magical lore, made this seem all the more likely. It is the Swiss herbalist Konrad Gesner who gave us the first European picture of a tomato, in a 1553 watercolor. He called it poma amoris “love apple.”

 

16th century herbalists were voracious writers (as anyone who has lugged around Gerard’s Herbal can attest to) and a great many of them kept up a lively correspondence with each other. The tomato word got around in Europe. Constanzo Felici notes around 1569-1572, “Apples of gold, so called vulgarly because of its intense color, or apple of Peru, they are intense yellow or a golden red…” He also mentions that tomatoes were eaten fried with verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes) a dish that, in his opinion, was more beautiful than tasty. [11]

 

Death

 

While southern Europe was discovering the deliciousness of tomatoes, those in the north viewed the interloper with suspicion. Health practitioners in the northern countries advised people to avoid eating raw fruits and vegetables in general. Sound medical practice in cold climates was to eat warm (i.e., cooked) food. As travel at the time was neither easy or swift – and very few even remotely learned people traveled very far from their homes – few northern herbalists or doctors could even imagine a climate hot enough for raw food to be eaten safely. Health professionals (which at this time included physicians, master cooks and herbalists) considered raw vegetables and especially fruits to have properties that were too cold and moist to have any nutritional value at the best and to be actually dangerous at worst.

 

John Gerard, in his The Herbal, or General History of Plants (published in 1597) writes his usual thorough entry on tomatoes (which he calls “apples of love”), describing the plant, its appearance (with a charming illustration), origin, and virtues – exactly none of the latter. He claims the tomato provides little nourishment and what little it does have, it tends to be corrupt. [12] Gerard mentions that tomatoes are eaten in “Spaine and those hot regions” where they were mixed with vinegar and pepper into a sauce used the way mustard was used in cold countries. [13]

 

Food science at this time [14] was concerned with, among other things, the relative wetness or dryness of food. With regard to tomatoes, what today we would call lusciously juicy would, in the 16th century, have been called moist in the 4th (potentially fatal) degree. Food needed to be in balance for it to be healthy, and anything with a property in the greatest (4th) degree was to be avoided at all costs [15]. This was one reason that some thought tomatoes were poisonous.

 

The story exists that some people were actually poisoned by eating tomatoes off of pewter plates. Supposedly, the acid in the tomatoes would leach the lead out of the pewter, which would then be ingested by the luckless diner. There is no real evidence that anyone living in the 16th century had made the connection between tomatoes, pewter plates, and death. Lead poisoning is an extremely slow, cumulative process and it would take longer than the time of a meal for a toxic amount of lead to ooze out of the metal and build up in a human body [16]. Renaissance cooks and, one would hope, scullions (dishwashers) were well aware that acidic foods should not be left in metal pots – because they damaged the pot [17], not because anything was known about metal poisoning. Like those pots, pewter plates were valuable pieces of household equipment and were treated accordingly.

 

Another reason for the tomato’s deadly reputation was the way the plant smelled. Many of us here in Caid (Southern California) are quite familiar with tomato plants, having grown them ourselves. It is true, tomato plants have a very strong odor and people either love the smell or hate it. 16th century people tended to hate it. (The fact that this smell could repel fleas and other pests seemed to have escaped them.) Gerald describes it as “rank and stinking savour [18].” To their way of thinking, such an evil-smelling plant could only produce evil, i.e., poisonous fruit.

 

A strangely compelling idea for the tomato’s unpopularity is a chemical quirk of its nature. Very acidic foods, like tomatoes, artichokes, and asparagus, can, when eaten with wine,  make the wine taste bad [19]. As wine was among the most popular beverages in Europe (along with ale, as water was usually not safe to drink) people eating tomatoes with their wine for the first time might indeed think they were being poisoned by the food, especially if they were certain that the wine was all right. This might explain why it took another two centuries and trouble in two of their three main agricultural industries [20] for tomatoes to creep into the south of France, where they are now a staple of Provenćal cooking [21].

 

Mere Curiosity

 

Deadly or not, tomatoes were grown in the gardens of northern European herbalists as a botanical curiosity. They were (and still are) a pretty plant, with vine-like branches, cheerful yellow flowers, and bright red berries. Eventually tomatoes escaped these confines (most likely in the digestive systems of birds and rodents) and became resident in other gardens as well

[22], although mothers would warn their children to stay away from it.

 

English settlers coming to America in the early decades of the 17th century brought the English distrust of the tomato with them back to the tomato’s native soil. And here the SCA’s period ends, but the tomato’s story continues.

 

Epilogue

 

It wasn’t until 1692 that the tomato finally made it into a cookbook, published in Naples, which identified it as being of Spanish origin. [23] In 1754 British naturalist Phillip Miller (a friend of Linnaeus, the father of our modern biological classification system) added esculentum (Latin for edible and the root of our word succulent) to the tomato’s name, perhaps in order to convince people to eat them. Tomato ketchup (see footnote 13) was introduced to England in 1812 by an American cook named James Measse, who claimed he had been making it since at least 1782.

 

It wasn’t until the early years of the 19th century that tomatoes became generally accepted in England and America. The story goes that in September 1820, Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey and ate a tomato before hundreds of spectators who fully expected him to fall writhing to the ground and die. He didn’t, of course, and mocked their fears of the delicious fruit, thus shaming America into eating their tomatoes. [ 24]

 

The fact that tomatoes are easy to grow and easy to preserve both by canning and the more recent sun-drying, as well as being delicious and nutritious [[1]], have made them one of the most popular vegetables in the world. More than one and a half billion tons are commercially[2] produced worldwide, while in America alone the average consumption is 18 pounds of fresh and 70 pounds of processed tomatoes each year. Recent health studies have found that Lycopene, a chemical found in tomatoes, has benefits for the human heart. Pretty good for a little Peruvian weed, hmmm?

 

Footnotes:

[1] “Unless they are purified into ketchup” used to be amended to this statement.

[2] The whole fruit vs. vegetable thing is outside the scope of this article. Let us agree that, biologically, the tomato is a fruit, but according the U.S. Department of Agriculture it is a vegetable, perhaps because most people don’t eat tomatoes for dessert. Legend has it that they were classified as veggies to avoid the taxes levied on fruit.

[3]The SCA "period" is defined to be Western civilization before 1600 AD, concentrating on the Western European High Middle Ages.” http://www.sca.org/sca-intro.html

[4] It is amusing in the context of this article that Cortez’s first conquest in Mexico was the town of Tabasco. Today the pepper sauce of that name (tomato-colored but containing no tomatoes) joins the tomato as one of the main ingredients in a Bloody Mary.

[5] Although the tomato didn’t know it yet, this handy characteristic would aid its dissemination throughout Europe and eventually the entire world, since the original pollinator, a species of bee, remained in South America.

[6] Smith Andrew F. The Tomato in America – Early History, Culture and Cookery. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1994. 15.

[7] There was an unfortunate tendency on the part of the Spanish to called both tomatl and xitomatl by the Spanish name “tomate.” In some references it is not possible to determine which fruit, if not both, is being discussed. Smith 15.

[8] Smith 15.

[9] The original work was published in 1544 but the earliest surviving edition was published in 1557, so we do not know if the tomato reference was in the original or if it was added as a revision.

[10] Another import from the New World, the potato, was also put into this family. Sweet potatoes also quickly gained a romantic reputation, possibly because of their shape. Henry VIII was said to have consumed them in great numbers. Zuckerman, Larry. The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World. North Point Press 1999. 14.

[11] Holloway, Joanna H., Louise Smithson & Robin Carroll-Man. “Sixteenth Century Italian and Spanish Tomato References.” 2002 Stephen’s Florilegium < http://www.florilegium.org/>;

[12] Gerard, John. The Herbal, or General History of Plants. Revised 1633 by Thomas Johnson. New York:  

Dover Publications, 1975. 346.

[13] Could this be the earliest known reference to Ketchup? Probably not. The earliest known recipe calling itself ketchup was in 1727 and contained anchovies, vinegar and spices. Tomato ketchup did not come along until 1812. Trager, James. The Food Chronolgy: A Food Lover’s Compendium of Events and Anecdotes, From Prehistory to the Presnt. New York: Henry Holt and Company 1995. 152, 202.

[14] Or medical science, which in the 16th century was the exact same thing.

[15] Not that it necessarily was. Then, as now, people did not always eat what was good for them but in the 16th century it was always possible to balance a harmful food with a another food or spice containing the opposite properties.

[16] Nation Institute of Health webpage: www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/leadpoisoning.html

[17] Which is the real reason modern cooks keep their copper cookware so shiny. The fact that it looks gorgeous is really a coincidence. Meltonville, Marc and Richard Finch. "Reconstructing the Kitchens of Hampton Court (England): Experimenting With a Tudor Kitchen." Culinary Historians of Southern California. Los Angeles Public Library. 29 Jan. 2005

[18] Gerard. 346.

[19] Hillman, Howard. The New Kitchen Science. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2003. 220.

[20] Toussant-Samat, Maguelonne. History of Food. Translated by Anthea Bell. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers 1992. In the 18th century the south of France was hit by a blight on their grapevines, which devastated the wine industry. Madder, a plant used for red dye, was being replaced by newer, cheaper sources, so that industry was also in trouble. Enter the tomato – easy to grow and extremely prolific. 708

[21] Toussant-Samat, 708. Included is a great recipe for Tomatoes a la Provenćal.

[22] As we modern gardeners know, tomatoes are perfectly capable, when left to their own devises, of taking over a garden. Any fruit that escapes harvest has the potential of becoming new tomato plants and, as the saying goes, any plant in the wrong place is a weed. It is very hard to kill a weed that is enthusiastically producing yummy fruit.

[23] Smith 17.

[24] It a good story and Salem annually celebrates Robert Gibbon Johnson Day with a reenactment of the famous feat, but there is no actual contemporary accounts and the story was first published in 1908. In 1949 CBS featured it on “You Are There.” Smith 4.

[25] Tomatoes are a excellent source of vitamins and minerals.

[26] Smith 1. And who knows how many grow in private gardens?

 

 

Bibliography

 

Albala, Ken. Eating Right in the Renaissance. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 2002.

 

Culpepper, Thomas. Culpepper’s Complete Herbal. London:  W. Foulsham & Co., Ltd.

 

Gerard, John. The Herbal, or General History of Plants. Revised 1633 by Thomas Johnson. New York:  

Dover Publications, 1975.

 

Hillman, Howard. The New Kitchen Science. Boston: Houghton Mifflin 2003.

 

Holloway, Joanna H., Louise Smithson & Robin Carroll-Man. “Sixteenth Century Italian and Spanish Tomato References.” 2002 Stephen’s Florilegium < http://www.florilegium.org/>;

 

Meltonville, Marc and Richard Finch. "Reconstructing the Kitchens of Hampton Court (England): Experimenting With a Tudor Kitchen." Culinary Historians of Southern California. Los Angeles Public Library. 29 Jan. 2005.

 

Nation Institute of Health webpage: www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/leadpoisoning.html

 

Rohde, Eleanour Sinclair; The Old English Herbals. New York:  Dover Publications 1971.

 

Smith Andrew F. The Tomato in America – Early History, Culture and Cookery. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1994.

 

Toussant-Samat, Maguelonne. History of Food. Translated by Anthea Bell. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers 1992.

 

Trager, James. The Food Chronolgy: A Food Lover’s Compendium of Events and Anecdotes, From Prehistory to the Presnt. New York: Henry Holt and Company 1995.

 

Wolke, Robert L. What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained. New York: W.W.Norton & Company 2002.

 

Zuckerman, Larry. The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World. North Point Press 1999.

 

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Copyright 2006 by Sharon Cohen, P.O. Box 7487, Northridge, CA 91327-7487.

<THLRenata at aol.com>. Permission granted for republication in SCA-related

publications, provided author is credited and receives a copy.

 

If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.

 

<the end>



 

 



Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org