When Tomatoes Were Terrifying

Back in the day, tomatoes were terrifying.

Who’s afraid of the big, bad . . . tomato? Despite its ubiquity in Italian cooking, the tomato is an all-American fruit (yes, technically it is fruit). These bright round morsels originally come from Peru where they were introduced to Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century. Although the native peoples of America had cultivated tomatoes since 700 AD, Europeans were initially quite skeptical of the new fruit. Tomatoes resembled poisonous nightshade plants and were promptly classified as such. It was a reasonable classification, as tomatoes are actually related to poisonous nightshade plants. Although a ripe tomato isn’t any danger, unripe tomatoes and every other part of the plant contain toxic alkaloids. Back in the day, tomatoes were blamed for causing illness and death in unlucky aristocrats. In actuality, the real culprit was lead. Wealthy people ate off of pewter plates and the acidity of the tomatoes caused lead in the pewter to leech into the food, resulting in lead poisoning. This is partly why the tomato gained in popularity among poor Italians, who used wooden plates. Added to these fears, people also believed that members of the nightshade family could be used to summon werewolves, which is why tomatoes were once unappealingly referred to as “wolf peaches.” So there’s that . . .

It took several years for the fears surrounding tomatoes to dissipate. By the 1800s, Americans and Europeans alike would eat heavily processed tomatoes, seasoned with vinegar and spices. Even if they conceded that tomatoes were safe, a dread of tomato horn worms still remained. At the time, people believed these worms could spit venom and poisoned whatever they crawled upon. The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had an unnatural fear of the caterpillars calling them, “an object of much terror.”

But times change and Campbell’s invented condensed tomato soup, so we can all eat our tomatoes bravely with pride.

Brian Rutter, PhD, is the cofounder of Thing in a Pot Productions and a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at Indiana University. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our “Things About Things – Odd Facts About Plants” and video production tips in your inbox every month!

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