You say tomato, I say tomatl – fun facts about our favorite fruit (yes, fruit)


The tomato: it’s not what you think it is.  Second only to potatoes, the tomato is one of America’s favorite vegetables. But [spoiler alert] it’s not actually a vegetable. More on that in a minute.

Tomato love, by the numbers. Of American households that have a garden, over 90% are growing tomatoes, and August is peak Midwestern tomato-picking time. This makes us really happy.

Tomatoes_2013If you’re happy and you know it, eat some tomatoes. Let’s take a look back to national tomato-eating statistics: the USDA says that an average American eats about 22 – 24 lbs of tomatoes each year. Now, about three-fourths of that is in the form of processed tomato products stuff (and about half the tomatoes we consume are in the form of ketchup and salsa – that’s a lotta condiment you’re putting on your food!). But that still leaves a good 5 + pounds (on average) of fresh tomatoes that we each consume (on average).

And nothing tastes closer to heaven than the flavor of a fresh, local, ripe tomato. Which is available, in abundance, right now. We’re sort of like the Forest Gump of tomatoes, making tomato salad, tomato pizza, roasted tomatoes, tomato marmalade, tomato jam, tomato pesto and tomato bruschetta, pasta with tomato sauce, BLT sandwiches, and whatever else we can think of to pair with tomatoes.

While we go out to the garden to pick some more tomatoes, read on for some fun tomato trivia that amuses us, that we think you’ll enjoy, too:

Once upon a time. Long before Europeans “discovered” the Americas (and tomatoes), tomatoes were being grown here (and by “here,” we mean somewhere between Central America and modern-day Peru). The tomato plant itself comes from the botanical family of Nightshade plants like potatoes, tobacco, and our beloved chili peppers, along with the infamous “deadly nightshade,” the medicinal (and sometimes poisonous) perennial belladonna.

Fun nightshade plant fact: the Aztecs domesticated the tomato around 500 B.C., and used it as food — and also as a potent (and dangerous) hallucinogenic.

classzone_inca-maya-aztec_mapPlump thing with a navel. The Aztecs called them xitomatl, which means “plump thing with a navel” (not to be confused w/ how you look in a swimsuit with a sunburn). The Nahuas called it tomatl, which literally means “the swelling fruit” (also, not referring to your bikini bod). You can see that it was a hop, skip and a jump for the Europeans to adapt the name, and start calling the rosy red tomatl food a tomato.

Come for the blood and treasure; stay for the fresh produce. The first record of a European encountering tomatoes was the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, as he was sacking the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan. He brought tomato seeds back to Spain, where it was quickly introduced into the rations of soldiers and sailors. (Can’t find any details or clarification whether these were regular tomatoes, or the hallucinogenic kind.)

Love apple vs the devil’s food. As the tomato was subsequently introduced elsewhere Europe in the 1500s, the French called it “the apple of love.” The Germans dubbed it “the apple of paradise.” In dour old England, the tomato was considered to be poisonous. The English weren’t alone in their reluctance, either: other European countries resisted incorporating tomato and other new world vegetables (potatoes, chiles) into their diets. They feared them for several reasons, not least of which was that these strange foods were not mentioned in the Bible.

Roger_Ebert_American_Werewolf_posterAn American wolf-peach in Europe. A French botanist named Tournefort assigned the botanical name, Lycopersicon esculentum, to the tomato. Why a Frenchman got to choose, we don’t know, but this Latin name translates, strangely, to “wolfpeach” – round and soft-skinned like a “peach, and “wolf” (maybe?) because many educated people considered the tomato poisonous at the time. It is thought that perhaps Messr. Tournefort mistakenly took the tomato for the mythological wolfpeach referred to in the writings of the ancient Greek physician-philosopher Galen, who wrote that wolves could be destroyed with tomatoes. More about that in this story we wrote a couple of summers ago.

Finally, back to what we began talking about at the beginning of this story:

Eva_Jablonski_Caprese_Salad_2015AugTomato: fruit or vegetable? Answer: yes – both.  The question had been a matter of contention for literal centuries, but it took a commercial/legal dispute in 1893 to settle the matter once and for all (sort of).  The US Supreme Court decided a case between a food importer and tax collector, who argued whether the tomato was a fruit or vegetable. The importer wanted to label the tomato a fruit (which had a lower import tax) but the tax collector demanded that it be recognised as a vegetable.

Botanically-speaking, the tomato is considered a fruit: it grows from the base of the plant’s flower, and the plant’s seeds are contained inside the tomato – like any other fruit. But consumers usually only cook and eat tomatoes in a vegetable-like context. The verdict of the Supreme Court was that the tomato is commonly known as a vegetable, and so, for import categorization purposes, it is considered a vegetable — even though, scientifically, it is considered a fruit.


Photo/illustration credits:
Heirloom tomato photos: Elisabeth Lewin
Central /So American map: classzone
American Werewolf: Roger Ebert