Tomatoes are such a major part of our diet that it's hard to imagine life before them. Surprisingly, their history is short and not in the least Italian. Who knew?
- Even though we associate the tomato with the Mediterranean (particularly Italy), the link between the two is relatively recent. The tomato originated in the New World, where tomato plants bearing cherry-sized fruits grew wild in Peru and northern Chile. The plant was first cultivated in Mexico.
- Until Spanish explorers discovered the plant in Mexico in the early 16th century, no European had ever tasted, much less seen, what Mexicans called 'tomati.'
- When the tomato first began spreading through Europe in the mid-16th century, it was treated as a garden ornamental. At the time, most Europeans believed tomatoes were either a lethal poison and/or an aphrodisiac (hence the name "love apple"). This notion proved remarkably durable, even in Italy, which didn't begin widespread cultivation of the tomato until the mid-18th century.
- In Italy, the first recorded recipe for tomato sauce did not appear until the early 18th century. And the first tomato sauce we would recognize as such doesn't show up until about 1800. The tomato did not come to dominate Italian cuisine until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite Italy's modern romance with the tomato, it took about 300 years for the country to fully embrace the fruit.