Tomatoes are everywhere in the American diet–in pasta sauces and ketchup, on salads and cheeseburgers. Hearty and easy to grow, tomatoes are often garden staples. But there’s probably quite a bit you don’t know about the common garden tomato that you eat every day.
Five Surprising Tomato Facts
1. The tomato is actually a fruit, and it’s unclear why we commonly classify it as a vegetable. Since the term “fruit” usually refers to the edible, seed-carrying portion of a plant, and “vegetable” refers to edible leaves, stems and roots, the tomato is technically a fruit. The origin of this linguistic confusion is not entirely clear, but the error has been perpetuated for generations by those who grow, price, process and sell tomatoes while formally classifying them as vegetables. The state of Arkansas is officially on the fence in this debate. Its state fruit and also its state vegetable are both the tomato.
2. Tomatoes were once thought to be poisonous. Tomatoes were first imported to Europe from South America, probably Peru, in the 1500s, and were generally considered toxic because of their close relationship to deadly nightshade and poisonous black henbane. The leaves and stems of tomatoes do actually contain chemicals that are poisonous. But the fruit of the tomato, especially the reddest red tomatoes, contains high levels of lycopene, one of our most powerful antioxidants. Tomatoes can protect us from heart disease and also certain cancers, including lung, stomach and prostate cancer. To maximize the health benefits of tomatoes, cook them to break down their cell walls.
3. The tomato has many names. The name “tomato” may have originated with the Aztec plant called the “xitomatl,” or “plump thing with a navel.” One of the scientific names for the tomato is “solanum lycopersicum,” which means “wolf peach.” In “Ode to the Tomato,” the great poet Pablo Neruda called the tomato the “luminary of the earth, repeated and fertile star.”
4. The invention of tomato sauce may have prompted the invention of the fork. Francesco Leonardi, a great Italian chef, was born in Rome in the 1700s and eventually rose to become the chef to Catherine the Great of Russia. In 1790, he wrote and published a comprehensive cookbook called “Modern Apicius,” documenting the history and traditions of Italian cuisine.
This book contains the first known reference to pasta with tomato sauce, a dish now considered a central pillar of traditional Italian cooking. Before the combination of tomatoes and pasta, perhaps the greatest culinary marriage in history, pasta noodles were often eaten sans sauce and with the fingers. Some historians suggest that many of our traditional table manners associated with the fork–which we take for granted today–may have originated with the application of tomato sauce to pasta and the need to find a new way of eating it.
5. Growing tomatoes is easier than you think. If you’re growing tomatoes this year, remember a few simple tips:
- Don’t crowd tomato seedlings too close together, since they grow fast and they enjoy elbow room.
- If you are planting seedlings, plant them deep. Tomatoes have the unique ability to grow roots all along their stems, so bury your seedlings all the way up to the lowest branches for a strong root base.
- Tomatoes come in over 10,000 varieties and can be striped, pink, white, black or yellow. Almost every variety likes plenty of sun and plenty of warmth.