top of page

Plant Stories: Tomatoes

By Lucia Kearney

(Solanum lycopersicum)

What do you think of when you think a tomato? Maybe juicy slices in a perfectly toasted BLT, or freshly chopped into a Greek salad, or layered with mozzarella and drizzled with balsamic in a caprese sandwich. Maybe you think of cherry tomatoes eaten by the handful, a simmering red sauce on the stove destined for a big bowl of pasta, the smoky flavors in Lebanese maghmour, or just the feeling of being in the full swing of summer.

There’s a tendency, I think, to dismiss sustainable farming as something romantic or escapist, a pretty vision but out of step with reality. But food – growing and eating it – is essential to the human story.

There’s an important movement happening within organic farming, a move to understand sustainable agriculture beyond the white/Western lens through which it is often presented; to understand and acknowledge the afro-indigenous sources of many contemporary sustainable practices, and to learn the stories and histories of the crops we grow and the lands we live on. A part of this movement is acknowledging that farmers are not just old, straight, Christian white men (no offense to Wendell Berry) – that farmers come in all hues, creeds, sexualities, gender-orientations, class, what have you, and that all of society benefits when farming is accessible to all who feel called to it.

There are many threads woven into the story of peoples and their relationship through food to the earth and to culture. And since it’s the height of tomato season, the tomato vine reaching back millennia, seems like a good thread to follow.

My earliest memory of tomatoes comes, of course, from Anna D’orazio, our nonna neighbor from Philly when I was a little kid. Each year she filled her tiny row house yard with tomato plants, interplanting them with marigolds and basil throughout (the marigolds to keep away pests, the basil for flavor). It was maybe because of this – and because of the prevalence of tomatoes in Italian cooking – that I assumed that tomatoes must originally have come from the Mediterranean, migrating to the United States along with immigrants from that region.

Turns out I was wrong. Or at least, mostly wrong. While Italian immigrants popularized tomatoes, they were not the first people to bring tomatoes to North America, nor do tomatoes come from the Mediterranean. Like many of the world’s most important crops (corn, beans, squash, and potatoes among them), tomatoes come from the Americas, more specifically Western South American and Central America. The word tomato actually originally comes from the Nahuatl word for tomatillo, tomatl, which means fat water. Tomatl became the Spanish word tomate which in turn became the English word tomato. The Aztecs likely cultivated the tomato from the tomatillo, which in turn had been cultivated from a wild ancestor native to Western South America that had pea-sized fruits. There are records of Mesoamerican people cooking with tomatoes dating back to at least 500AD.

(above: tomatillos in our fields)

It was an act of violence that likely brought the tomato to Europe. When Hernán Cortes brutally conquered Tenochitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs, he is thought to have brought a variety of small yellow tomatoes with him back to Spain, thus introducing the fruit to Europe in the early 1500s (botanically speaking, tomatoes are considered a fruit, while in culinary terms they are considered a vegetable). The first known mention of the tomato in European writing is by Pietro Andre Mattioli – an Italian physician and botanist – in 1544 he described it as a new type of eggplant.

At first, only poor people ate tomatoes in Europe. There are a few theories as to why. Wealthy people in the 1500s often ate from pewter plates and flatware, which contain lead. The acid in tomatoes draws lead from the pewter, perhaps leading people to wrongly blame tomatoes for lead poisoning. Poor people, who ate from plates made of wood, suffered no such consequences, and so readily adopted the tomato into their diet. When the tomato reached Britain, it was recognized as a relative of the poisonous plant belladonna (they are both members of the Solanaceae family, which includes peppers, eggplant, and potatoes). Because of this, for many years tomatoes were seen by many as ornamental plants, and were only later recognized for their culinary value. In the famous 1753 work Species Plantarum, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus(who formalized binomial nomenclature – the Latin naming of plants which helps to distinguish between the many common names they are known by) gave tomatoes the name Solanum lycopersicum, the latter part of which translates literally to Wolf Peach. I don’t know why it was given this name, but I do know that it would make a great band name.

The tomato followed the Spanish as they continued to colonize, making its way to Asia through the Phillipines. In Chinese, it’s known as番茄(fānqié in Mandarin) which means “barbarian eggplant.” The tomato arrived in India by way of the Portuguese; in Bengal, the name for tomato is vilyati begun meaning “foreign eggplant.” The introduction of tomatoes to the Middle East is commonly attributed to John Barker, the British consul in Aleppo in the early 1800s, and is now an integral part of Middle Eastern cooking. (It surprised me that the tomato didn’t make its way from the European Mediterranean to the Middle Eastern and African Mediterranean before then, but my brother the history major suspects that this is because the Ottoman Empire and the Christian West were at war for much of this period, obstructing trade between the two groups).

There’s some uncertainty as to how tomatoes arrived in North America, but the theory goes that they were introduced from the Caribbean to the Southeastern part of what is now the United States. The earliest written record of them in North America comes from the herbalist William Salmon, who wrote that he had seen them in what is now South Carolina. By the mid-1700s, they were being grown on Carolina plantations. Many people in the colonies may still have thought that tomatoes were poisonous at the time; they were more often grown as ornamentals than for food. That mindset eventually changed, and by the late-1800s, plant breeders were trying to develop tomatoes for use in commercial agriculture, and today tomatoes are ubiquitous in all of North America.


Which brings us back to Italians. While the tomato may have traveled to the British Americas via the Caribbean, it was most likely Italian immigrants who popularized the tomato and cemented its place in the colonized Americas. According to Professor Donna R. Gabaccia in her piece Pizza, pasta and red sauce: Italian or American? Crops of European origins – like wheat – began to be grown and exported on a massive scale from the North American Prairies and the Argentine Pampas in the 1800s. These imports threatened the livelihood of Italian peasant farmers who could not compete, spurring over 26million people to leave Italy between 1870 and 1970 in search of work. About a third of these migrants went to North America, a quarter to Argentina (which is where my own Italian roots come from), and the rest to European destinations across the Alps. By 1920, Buenos Aires and New York both had more Italian residents than any city in Italy.


These large populations of Italians living abroad created a large market for Italian goods; in the mid-1800s, peasants in Northern Sicily and Naples began to expand the cultivation of tomatoes for export, and to process them, producing thick tomato puree and canned, lightly cooked tomatoes. The production of pasta also increased as a way to add value to wheat products, and olive oil was also bottled for export. Italian laborers abroad were still relatively poor, but as wage earners they had more cash to spend on imported foods than they had as peasants back in Italy. Foods that had previously been eaten for special occasions in Italy – pasta, meat, and cheese, for example – became a part of Italian migrants’ daily cuisine.


The rise of Mussolini led to a sharp fall in exports to the Americas (Mussolini being an “Italy first” kind of guy) leading to the greater production of tomatoes (and pasta and hard cheeses) in both the United States and Argentina.

Toni Morrison famously said, “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying ‘We love the status quo.’”

I heard this quote back in high school when we were reading Song of Solomon in my senior English class, and I’ve come back to it often. Everything, I think, is political if you dig beyond the surface. Even, it turns out, the tomato. The humble and lauded tomato has much to tell us about the world, cultivated from a wild nightshade in Western South American and Mesoamerica, developed and cultivated by farmers in the Aztec Empire and still by their Nahuatl descendants, 1.7million of which still speak Nahuatl today. Traveling the world along with conquerors and immigrants, becoming so much a part of local cuisine as to become native to its new home, commercialized, developed into thousands of varieties, grown in backyards, community gardens, and small farms the world over, feeding billions of people.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that gardening, farming, participating in land stewardship – these things all connect us to the present; to the smell of tomato leaves and the bright yellow pollen that sticks to your arms as you prune the vines, to the warmth of the soil underfoot, and the feel of a ripe tomato in your palm. But they also connect us to the past, to culture, to history, to all the brutality and the beauty and all the stories in-between. The tomato was there when Tenochitlan fell, there with poor Italian immigrants crossing the ocean in search of work and maybe a new life, there on the stove in Anna D’Orazio’s kitchen making another batch of sauce while I sat at the kitchen table eating her homemade pizzelles. It’s all connected, even if many of the stories have been lost or hidden away. It makes me wonder how they managed it, what it was like, the Mesoamerican people who coaxed a tomatillo from its ancient ancestor, and from there, the tomato.

Gardening, sustainable agriculture, land-stewardship – whatever you want to call it – is, at its best, not an escape, but a connection to the present and to the past, a connection to the ecosystems and larger earth of which we are a part, and to all the peoples of the earth. You can chew on that with your next BLT.

Until next time!



1491 by Charles C. Mann, 2005

115 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page