Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Solanum lycopersicum

“It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.”
—Lewis Grizzard

When the Spanish first arrived in the New World, they were confronted with many new and wonderful food crops. The tomato was one such fruit, and, although it was often misunderstood and feared, it has become one of the most important foods in the world today. It is grown and consumed in almost every part of the world, and has become an iconic item; lending color, flavor and substance to the cuisines of many regions.


The tomatoes we know today are descended from the wild tomato (Solanum Pimpinellifolium), which is found all over South America, particularly in the Andean region of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile. These wild tomatoes were not, however, domesticated in the Andes, and no evidence exists that they were utilized by the great Inca civilization that called this region home. It was the Aztecs of Mexico that can claim the credit for domesticating this now omnipresent delicacy.

Early historical accounts from the New World attest to the great variety of tomatoes that were cultivated by the Aztecs. Friar Bernardino de Sahagún mentions “Large tomateos, small tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, thin tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, ... those which are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red, ... bright red, reddish, rosy dawn colored” (Johnson 1997; 85). The Spanish conquerors lumped all of these varieties of fruits into a single group – tomate – a word derived from the Nahuatl word tomatl, which was used as a suffix for all of the different tomato varieties, as well as at least one similar, but unrelated fruit, the tomatillo, or “husk tomato” (Johnson 1997). Xitomatl was the name of the large red fruit that we currently associate with the word tomato.

The Misunderstood Fruit

Unlike other foods that were brought back to Europe from the New World, the tomato was not widely accepted, and its popularity was delayed until relatively recently. A number of factors played against it. To begin with, many people didn't know much about it or what to do with it. It only began to appear in herbals several decades after its initial introduction to Europe, and these were full of inaccuracies and misinterpretations. John Gerard, for example, described the plant as having a “ranke and stinking savour,” and said that tomatoes “yeeld very little nourishment to the body” (Johnson 1997; 87). He referred to them as the “Golden Apples” or “Apple of love.” These were translations of the Italian and French names pomo d'oro and pomme d'amour, which may refer to the yellow varieties that would have been first brought to Europe from the new world or they are mispronunciations of pomo di mori, the Italian name for the eggplant (which was first brought to Italy from North Africa).

Yet another problem faced by the tomato was its association with poisonous plants. One herbalist claimed, falsely, that they were related to the mandrake, a plant that was considered to be God's first attempt at creating humans. This misplaced association gave the tomato a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Like the potato, eggplant and peppers, the tomato is a member of the solanaceae family, which consists of many plants, both edible and toxic. This relationship created a negative perception in many areas. Indeed, the leaves of the tomato are toxic and many people believed the fruit to be toxic as well. This legacy remained with the tomato in some places, including England and the United States, until the 19th century. However, despite both of these setbacks, the tomato ultimately became an important food.

In almost every region, its use was first seen among the poor. The ease with which tomatoes are cultivated, and the fact that they were nutritious, colorful and tasty made them popular among the lower classes. It was only after they saw the peasantry consuming them that the upper classes recognized their value, and they began to be incorporated into various regional cuisines. In particular, the cuisines of Spain and Italy became associated with the tomato. There they were used largely in sauces, similar to those found in Aztec Mexico, but with European spices and vegetables rather than peppers. Over the centuries their use has spread around the world. China and Southeast Asia are the most recent adopters of the tomato, since it has only become a part of their diet in the last century.

The Modern Tomato

Most tomatoes today go into fast food or catsup, and are produced on large highly industrialized farms. In order to make them easier to transport, to be able to store them over long trips, and grow them any time of the year, tomatoes were modified dramatically from their original variety and tastiness. Modern tomatoes are uniform in shape, bright red and shiny, and longer lasting, however, they lack the juiciness, flavor and aroma of their forebears. More recently, though, tomatoes have seen a renaissance with the emergence of various “heirloom” varieties. These tomatoes, usually homegrown or found in local markets or through CSAs, come in as many different colors, shapes, textures and tastes as those found in pre-colombian Mexico. As a result many people are rediscovering the amazing qualities of the tomato.


Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.

Long, Janet. “Tomatoes.” The Cambridge World History of Food. 1st ed. Ed. Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 351-358.

Johnson, Sylvia A. Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Eating Arou. 1st ed. Atheneum, 1997.