A Brief History of the Love Apple

This popular fruit, once disparaged, is one of 3,000 species of Solanaceae, the nightshade family, along with the potato, tobacco, red peppers, eggplant, and narcotics, including the poisonous sacred datura. Today it is known that all parts of the tomato, except the fruit, are toxic.

The tomato originates in the Andes, and is still found wild and wizened in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, with marble-sized fruit clustered on small vines. Cultivated first in Central America, later introduced into Mexico, the Mayans called it xtomatl. Cortez actually purchased the seeds in Chichen Itza and took them back to Europe. A Spanish chef was first to combine the fruit with olive oil, herbs, and onions. In Spain the fruit was reputed to be an aphrodisiac, hence the love apple; and later it became called the wolf peach, since it was also believed deadly.

The Empress Eugenie introduced the Spanish dishes to France, and Napoleon's chef introduced the tomato into French cuisine when he invented Chicken Marengo.

Thomas Jefferson grew tomatoes at Monticello in 1781, but the fruit was still not part of the American diet. In Salem, as late as 1800, ancestors of witch hunters would not even "touch the tomato with a ten-foot fork". Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson wanted the Salem farmers to eat the tomato he introduced to them in 1808.

So at a public event Colonel Johnson ate quantities of the red fruit to prove he would not be struck dead. Then he proclaimed: "The time will come when this luscious, golden apple, rich in nutritive value, a delight to the eye, a joy to the palate, whether fried, baked, or eaten raw, will form the foundation of a great garden industry, and will be recognized, eaten, and enjoyed as an edible food." And so it has been.

Reference: The Great American Tomato Book by Robert Hendrickson.  2015, this book is out of print and unavailable in Cochise County libraries. Smithsonian Magazine has a short history and links to others.

Barbara Shelor
October, 1991