Saturday, August 14, 2010

The history of tomatoes

In his new book, “Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy,” [David] Gentilcore traces the tomato from its origins in the New World, where it was domesticated by the Maya, then cultivated by the Aztecs. It likely entered Europe via Spain, after conquistador Hernan Cortes’s conquest of Mexico. When it arrived on the scene in Italy, it was strictly a curiosity for those who studied plants — not something anyone faint of heart would consider eating. In 1628, Paduan physician Giovanni Domenico Sala called tomatoes “strange and horrible things” in a discussion that included the consumption of locusts, crickets, and worms. When people ate tomatoes, it was as a novelty. ...

GENTILCORE: You can’t imagine Italian food without [tomatoes]. And yet most of these dishes, such as pasta al pomodoro, are fairly recent — from the 1870s or ’80s. Italian immigrants arriving in New York City or Boston were the first generation to eat these dishes as daily things. Making a rich meat sauce with maybe the addition of tomato paste, that Sunday gravy style, is something that happens only in the 20th century. ...

The tomato was associated with the eggplant, which was regarded with suspicion. It’s a vine. Anything that grows along the ground was seen as a plant of low status, something you only give to peasants. And the tomato was thought to hinder digestion because it was cold and watery. When ideas about digestion changed, something like a tomato was not harmful anymore. ...

Francisco Hernandez, a personal physician to King Philip II of Spain, was sent to the New World to write a huge compendium on animals and plants. He was dismayed and disgusted by the appearance of the tomatillo, which was considered the same thing. He compared it to female genitalia.
--Devra First, Boston Globe, on tomatoes as objects of disgust

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