Tomatoes originated in Central America. The Spanish explorer, Cortez, conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan which later was renamed Mexico City in 1521. It is believed that Spanish priests brought the tomato to Europe from Mexico shortly thereafter. Aztec writings in Central America mention dishes comprised of peppers, salt and tomatoes, a concoction that seems likely to be the original salsa recipe. The Aztecs of Central America called them "xitomaty" and wild Central American tribes called them "tomati".
Genetic analysis of old cultivars descended from the original stock brought out of the New World by the Spanish showed modern cultivars to be closely related to a cultivar one widely grown in Mexico. This cultivar was subsequently named as a variety of the domesticated tomato, called cerasiforme, and is regarded to be the direct ancestor of the modern cultivated tomato. The cerasiforme variety still grows in a somewhat wild state in Central America, producing small, cherry-like fruits on a creeping vine. This is commonly known as the cherry tomato.
The earliest mention of the tomato in Europe was found in an Herbal written by Matthiolus in 1544. He described tomatoes and wrote that they were "eaten in Italy with oil, salt and pepper." The Italians called them pomi d'oro, the golden apple. This provides evidence that the first tomatoes to reach the Old World were a yellow variety and that they were introduced via the Mediterranean. Red tomatoes were said to be introduced to Italy by two Catholic priests many years later. Although not specifically documented, early tomatoes were probably small-fruited cerasiforme variety cultivated by the Aztecs.
Many people in Europe would not eat tomatoes because they looked liked poisonous plants. Also, eating them had poisoned people but only because they ate from lead plates and did not know that it was lead poisoning they had been exposed to. This caused the tomato to be shunned in Europe until the early 1800's.
Cultivation of perhaps several varieties became widespread in the ensuing decades in Spain, Italy and in France. Although used in a limited manner as a food in Mediterranean countries, northern European countries regarded the tomato as a curiosity for over a century. English authors referred to the tomato as a horticultural ornamental as early as 1578.
By 1623, four types of tomatoes were known: red, yellow, orange and golden with the distinction between yellow and golden perhaps only in the mind of different authors. The first cookbook to mention tomatoes was published in Naples in 1692. By 1700, seven types are mentioned in one article, including a large, red type. In 1752, English cooks used tomatoes sparingly in flavoring soups. In 1758, a tomato recipe allegedly appeared in the popular British cookbook, "The Art of Cookery," by Hannah Glass. Earliest records of marketing tomatoes are from the early 1800's in Europe.
Tomato plants were brought to Northern America with colonists early on as ornamentals from Britain. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson brought tomatoes to his table along with French fries. George Washington Carver, the man who made peanut butter a household item, strongly advocated tomato consumption to his poor Alabama neighbors in an effort to improve their woefully vitamin-deficient diet, but met with limited success. Early efforts by merchants to peddle their crops were not highly successful. People still believed they are poisonous.
In spite of their beliefs, tomatoes began to steadily grow in popularity around the Western World. Several cookbooks from the 1820's include tomatoes in recipes. In 1835, tomatoes were sold by the dozen in Boston's Quincy Market. In 1847, Thomas Bridgeman listed many varieties in his seed catalogue. The plants began to occupy a great surface of ground, as great as the cabbage.
Tomato plants are naturally self-pollinating, and a general characteristic of self-pollinating plants is that they become genetically homozygous after many generations. Since they do not naturally outcross very often, seeds of a tomato will produce plants resembling the parents. Early cultivars did not change much because of this property, and were kept in a family or community for long periods of time, thus earning the name heirlooms. Heirloom cultivars dating back over a hundred years are still grown today. Most heirloom varieties are unique in size, shape and color. Some are black, dark purple or red with black shoulders. Many are green some have green stripes. Some are rainbow colored, or shaped like peppers. There are orange and yellow cultivars, too. Some are cherry size and others weigh two pounds.
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