Tomatoes are a most misunderstood fruit. Botanically speaking they are a fruit, but legally, in the United States, they are considered to be a vegetable. Yes, legally a vegetable. In 1883 The US Supreme Court passed this ruling. Basically, a dispute arose around the nation’s tariff and shipping rate regulations regarding different charges for fruits and for vegetables.
So, yes, people conventionally consume tomatoes prepared like veggies in salads, sauces, and side dishes for the main courses of meals. We generally don’t eat tomatoes for dessert. That means we can safely call them vegetables or fruits, depending upon context, of course.
At one time, tomatoes were greatly feared by people of European descent. Some folks refered to the tomato as the “poison apple”. There are a couple of reasons for that perception.
After the introduction of the tomato from South America to Europe, well-to-do Europeans sometimes fell ill and often died after eating sliced tomatoes. It turns out that the fruit was often served on pewter dinnerware. Due to the tomato’s high acid content, the juice caused the lead of the pewter to leach out, hence lead poisoning. Since nobody bothered to scientifically analyze the situation, tomatoes received the blame, by default.
At around the same time botanists had classified the fruit as a member of the deadly nightshade family. The Italian herbalist, Pietro Matthioli categorized the tomato as a nightshade and a mandrake. The mandrake has a loaded Christian religious connotation as being both poisonous and a temptation–a sort of “love apple”.
There was also a bit of racism surrounding the tomato. The British royal family believed that the fruit was consumed by natives in “hot countries” in order to quench the thirst and heat of “hot stomachs”. The British only grew tomato plants as ornamentals to add a curious touch to their gardens.
Meanwhile, back in the American Colonies, there were various opinions regarding tomatoes. Some provinces retained the belief that the fruit was a deadly poison. People in other provinces believed tomatoes were a useful, healthy food. The tomato’s bad reputation began to further subside following the nation’s independence from Great Britain.
There are at least two stories about the effort to clear the tomato of its bad reputation. The one that seems most reasonable involves Thomas Jefferson. Our nation’s third President was not only an excellent cook, but was a “near vegetarian”. At his estate, Monticello, was a 1,000 foot long vegetable garden. In it were practically all the fruits, vegetables, and herbs necessary to feed himself, his family, and guests.
Over several decades, Jefferson experimented with various species of vegetables and fruits. He was unafraid to tinker with plants like peanuts, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. In fact he cultivated many varieties of tomato, including the “Thomas Jefferson Tomato”. It was rather shocking to the public when the President actually served stewed tomatoes to dinner guests in 1806.
The other story is a bit dubious. The folk tale has various versions, but for our purposes, I’ll use the most popular one. Legend says that Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem County, New Jersey decided to host a public event to prove that tomatoes are delicious and perfectly safe to eat. Supposedly, Johnson placed advertisements in the local newspapers in June of 1820 to promote the event.
Perhaps 1,000 or so residents gathered around noon on June 28, 1820 to witness the spectacle. Johnson marched from his mansion to the courthouse while the crowd cheered him on and the volunteer firemen’s band played a happy tune. On the courthouse steps, Johnson gave a short lecture about the history of the tomato. Then he dramatically reached into a basket and plucked out a particularly red, plump specimen. Johnson took a huge bite out of the fruit. After consuming the first tomato, he ate two more. All the while, the band played a funeral dirge. Of course, the colonel survived the snack and went on to become a local legend.
The big problem with the folktale, is that there are no definitive documents that prove Colonel Johnson actually did this. The first accounts were not published until many years later. The Johnson story might have been concocted to promote the budding tomato growing industry in Southern New Jersey in the late 1800s. Nobody seems to know for sure.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes former Iowa Governor and current US Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack. “I don’t care what anybody says: Nothing is better than a tomato you grow. There’s something about it that’s different than a tomato you can buy. It’s a great thing.”