Day 5: Tomatoes – Celebrate American Food History

Tomatoes, poisonous or aphrodisiac?

That was the question lurking in the pot for quite some time after the Spanish and the Portuguese began their voyages to the New World beginning around the late fifteenth century and likely introduced the tomato (and other New World foods) to Europe and Africa. John Gerard, a renown herbalist and author of The Herball, or, General Historie of Plants (1636), condemned the tomato to culinary purgatory in Europe, for he wrote that they were poisonous and “of ranke and stinking savour.” Following the publishing trends of the times, Gerard plagiarized from the work of Rembert Dodoens (Rembertus Dodenus) and Charles de L’Ecluse (Carolus Clusius) and so not of his pronouncements cleared the truthiness tests of the day.

Nevertheless, cookers and eaters looked upon tomatoes with suspicion for quite some time.

Lumped with the Solanaceae family, or deadly nightshade, what was the poor tomato to do, but wait until the coast was clear, emerging finally with a boost from Thomas Jefferson and his cousin-by-marriage, Mary Randolph, author of The Virginia House-wife (1824), one of the most influential cookbooks of the early nineteenth century. In her cookbook, Mrs. Randolph touted the virtues of the tomato (she called them “tomatas”). All told, there seems to be seventeen recipes entailing the use of “tomatas” in her cookbook.

Of course, Mrs. Randolph was not the first to include tomatoes in a cookbook used in America. Our English culinary friend, Hannah Glasse, in 1756 printed a recipe in her The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy for fish done in the Spanish manner, stewed with “love apples,” or tomatoes as people called them in the heady days of exploration and early empire. A quick glance at the cookbook derived from the manuscript of Harriott Pinckney Horry of South Carolina – A Colonial Plantation Cookbook (1770) – indicates that tomatoes found a place in at least some American kitchens; she included instructions “To Keep Tomatoes for Winter Use.”

The topic of tomatoes is vast, space and time not so much. Here we shall just catch a glimpse of a simple recipe, with signals of English and French influences – bread crumbs, butter, black pepper – “To Scollop Tomatas”:

Scollop tomatas Randolph

tomatoes-and-tomato-gravy-cropped-3-dark-contrasts rs 2


For more about tomatoes and their fascinating history:

The Case Against Heirloom Tomatoes

Pomodoro: A History of the Tomato in Italy, by David Gentilcore, Columbia University Press; New York, 2010.

Livingston and the Tomato, by A. W. Livingston (first material published in 1893)

The Tomato had to Go Abroad to Make Good

Note:  It’s soon to be a big, big day for Gherkins & Tomatoes – on July 28 G&T will celebrate eight (8) years (!) of writing about food and food history. Why, that’s 1,181 posts. Yes, there could – and should – have been more lots more, but we must take into account the time spent writing the mushroom book and other stuff.

To celebrate, I’ve decided to post a recipe a day until July 28, and not just any recipes. No, no quick tricks for the kitchen, no instant no-bake cheesecakes, sorry. Each day I will feature a small insight into American food history.

See the other days:

Day 1: Tuckahoe

Day 2: Oysters

Day 3: Chicken

Day 4: Corn

Day 6: Beef

Day 7: Squirrel