Can you imagine pasta without tomato sauce? Or pizza? Neither could we — until now.

It turns out that while the tomato is one of the most widely used fruits in international cuisine, it was domesticated by Mesoamerican peoples 2,600 years ago. Simply put, without the Mexican tomato, famous cuisines like Italian would be very different today.

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But before we change how we look at our favorite pizza, let’s take a look at the history of the tomato.

Credit: Pexels.

A delicious fruit “with a belly button”

Although the exact date of the tomato plant’s domestication is unknown, by 500 B.C., it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The Aztecs called red tomatoes “xitomatl” (or “fruit with navel”) and yellow ones “tomatl”. In fact, “tom” means “fat,” and “atl” means “of water.” Today, in some regions, the red fruit is called “jitomate” and the green one “tomatlan”.

While the fruit formed a fundamental part of Aztec cuisine, it was believed that eating tomato seeds bestowed divination powers among the Pueblo people. But perhaps that is a story for another time.

According to the Franciscan linguist Bernardino de Sahagún, there was a great variety of tomatoes in the Aztec market at Tenochtitlán. Sahagún wrote that the Aztecs cooked all kinds of sauces that they also offered in the market.

The oldest surviving tomato fruit and leaves. Page from the En Tibi Herbarium, 1558. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Spaniards made sure that Mexican tomatoes reached everywhere

As they used to do with all our riches, the Spanish also used this fruit as a token of their conquest and domination of the indigenous peoples. It is said that Hernán Cortés took the first yellow tomato to Europe with the treasures looted from Tenochtitlán. 

Thus, Spanish colonization brought them not only to Europe but to all its colonies in the Caribbean, South America, and even the Philippines. From there, it spread to the Asian continent.

A plant breeder we know only as Mr Miesse, holding his own work, “Maule’s 1900” variety tomatoes, as they appeared in Maule’s Seed Catalog.

The physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli first mentioned the tomato in European literature. In 1544, Mattioli described it as “a new type of eggplant that was blood red or golden color” that could be divided into wedges and eaten cooked and seasoned with salt, black bell pepper, and oil. Later, Mattioli would baptize the tomato as “pomi d’oro” or “golden apples.”

However, before reaching pasta, tomatoes were grown in Italy as ornamental plants. Thanks to the climate and the plant’s versatility, the tomato soon became popular.

And surprise, surprise. The first cookbook with tomato recipes was discovered in Naples. Since then, it has been a key ingredient in Italian cuisine. Italians developed unique varieties and even methods for preserving them over the winter.

Credit: Pexels.

Finally, in the United States, English settlers were afraid of the fruit

After first seeing them in South Carolina, probably from the Caribbean, many Americans in the 18th century considered them poisonous. 

In 1897, W. H. Garrison addressed the Medico-Legal Society of New York, stating, “The belief was once transmitted that the tomato was sinisterly dangerous.” He recalled in his youth, tomatoes were dubbed “love apples or wolf apples,” and they were shunned as “globes of the devil.”

Over time, however, people recognized their versatility and delicious flavor; the rest is history.