The tomato was first discovered in Mesoamerica, the region that includes parts of Mexico and South America where the fruit originated. The Aztecs are thought to have been the first to have ever eaten tomatoes in 700 AD. At the time, the Aztecs called the fruit the “tomatl,” a term from which the word “tomato” was eventually derived. Seeds from the fruit were eventually brought to areas of Europe, including Italy, by Spanish conquistadors who returned from expeditions in Mesoamerica with the seeds.
This new fruit was, at first, thought to be poisonous in Italy. For this reason, tomatoes were merely used as a decorative plant. The fear of the tomato can, in part, be attributed to Italian herbalist Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who classified the tomato as a mandrake, a term from the Old Testament, in one of the earliest European references to the fruit. This classification gave the tomato a reputation as poisonous aphrodisiac.
The publication of “Herball” by John Gerard in 1597 also contributed to the bad reputation the tomato had in the seventeenth century. Although Geread was a barber-surgeon whose work was riddled with spelling errors, his consideration of the tomato as a fruit “of ranke and stinking savour” was accepted in areas of Europe and North America for over 200 years. As medicine improved in the mid-seventeenth century and physicians came to better understand the process of digestion, they no longer found the tomato to be poisonous, as long at the fruit was cooked. In fact, the tomato, previously thought to be detrimental to the digestion process, was thought to have properties that aided in digestion. While some began to cook with and eat the fruit at this time, the fear of tomato consumption that had spread across Europe hindered any widespread acceptance of this new information.
Antonio Latini, an orphan who late became a kitchen steward, was the first in Europe to include tomatoes in his written recipes. He indicated that his recipes that included the tomato were “alla spanuola” or “in the Spanish style.” In the early 1700s, Francisco Gaudentio, a cook at a Jesuit college in Rome, also included tomatoes in his recipes.
Nonetheless, a significant amount of Europeans still feared the tomato in the late 1700s. At this time, aristocrats were thought to get sick and die after eating the fruit. It is now known, however, that many of the wealthy Europeans who were thought to have died from tomato consumption ate off of plates with a high lead content. It is now known that lead poisoning, rather than tomato consumption, is to blame for these deaths.
Despite these rumors, some still experimented with the use of tomatoes in recipes. In 1784, Italian chef Vincenzo Corrado published a book on cooking vegetables in which he described tomatoes as tasty and nutritious.
According to David Gentilcore, a professor of early modern history who has studied the social and cultural history of Italy extensively, “Corrado’s book usually is cited as the first time tomatoes enter the Italian diet, but in fact, he was building on an established culinary tradition.”
Soon after, Italians finally began cooking with tomatoes in a different manner than the Spanish did (the same manner in which Latini and Gaudentio used tomatoes). Religious institutions began cooking with and eating tomatoes regularly in the late 1700s. Tomatoes were used in a…