Some History on the Tomato and the Love Apple

Trout, Grouse, Tomatoes (Boston Public Library, (Source.)

A trite legend but accurate anecdote for the plant’s history, in the early 1800s people across America and Europe were terrified by an ornamental fruit that was pretty but highly poisonous, the love apple. According to the story, a man named Robert Gibbon Johnson announced to the community of Salem, New Jersey, that he was going to eat a basket of the deadly fruit in public. And as the townsfolk looked on in front of the courthouse, Johnson proceeded to openly consume a quantity of love apples and failed to keel over and die as expected, demonstrating that the tomato was, surprise, no danger at all.[1]

The tomato was in fact believed to be deadly by people on both continents, and this was the 1820s, just two hundred years ago. Imagine a world void of tomato juice, tomato sauce, tomato paste, and tomato purée, a world deprived of pizza and spaghetti sauce, as well as chicken tikka masala and chili con carne. Considering the popularity of tomatoes today and the gigantic quantities produced, it’s hard to fathom how short a time the tomato has been the worldwide hit it is.

Origin of the Tomato

Tomatoes started out as weeds in the Andes Mountains in modern-day Peru and Ecuador (there’s a claim to fame you don’t hear about).* The plant was domesticated by the Aztecs, who called it tomatl. In 1519 when Hernán Cortés reached Mexico, the plant had been turned into a high-yield crop producing multiple varieties of the fruit.

The first tomatoes brought back to Europe were possibly orange-yellow; the Italians called it pomodoro. A French name that sprang up was pomme d’amour, giving rise to the English “love apple.” The reference is to the fruit's reputation as an aphrodisiac, but the French was possibly a corruption of the name pomi di mori, or apple of the moor—like maize, in Central Europe people believed things exotic came from the East, from “India” or the lands of the Moors (Muslims). (Maize was in places called “Turkish wheat.”)


In fact, as use the two plants spread across the continent, people still believed the newly discovered lands of Columbus were in the East, including Ferdinand Magellan, who after traversing his strait was rather perplexed to find an unending Pacific Ocean, a feeling that no doubt grew in intensity over the three months he spent crossing it as crewman after crewman died of starvation and scurvy.

Initially the tomato was a hit. But as Europeans learned to utilize the tomato's flavor and texture in cooking, aristocrats began keeling over and dying after consuming the fruit, spreading fear that the tomato was a danger. Tomatoes were only part of the cause of death, however. The real culprit was the lead plates the wealthy were eating off of. The acidity in tomatoes leached up lead to deliver lead poisoning to the hapless diners.

A Star Is Born

It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the tomato's flavor and texture overcame people's fears, and it took more than a guy eating fruit in front of a courthouse in New Jersey.

The heroes in the tomato's rise were the chefs and cooks who innovated with the fruit, combining the tomato's flavor with basil, oregano, and other herbs, and with pasta, cheese, and breads. It was pizza and spaghetti sauce that sold the love apple in the west, and other dishes elsewhere.

Today the tomato is loved the world over, a key ingredient in everything from Indian curries to Mexican salsas. Globally nearly 187 million metric tons of tomatoes were produced in 2020.[2] Surprisingly, the world’s leading producer is China—in 2020 at 65 million tons—a country where the tomato is not the favorite it is in places like Italy and Spain. China was followed by India, Turkey, the US, and Egypt as the top five, then Italy, Iran, Spain, Mexico, and Brazil.

Fun Tomato Facts

1. Not all tomatoes are red. Some are yellow, orange, pink, green, burgundy, purple, and nearly black-brown.

2. There are more than 10,000 varieties of tomatoes, most round but some long, others odd looking.

3. The tomato of course is fruit. Like cucumbers and bell peppers the fruit carries seeds—tomatoes are fruit that are thought of as vegetables.

4. Schools in Canada have developed space tomatoes. Some 600,000 tomato seeds were sent to the International Space Station before being grown in classrooms across Canada, an experiment to learn the effect of weightlessness on seed development. The project was dubbed “Tomatosphere.”

5. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the “most tomatoes harvested from a single plant over one year” was 32,194, in 2005–2006. That would make a lot of salsa.

6. These facts were compiled by Campbell’s Soup, reading for you while dipping your grilled cheeses into tomato soup.[3]


1. I first heard this story on a Paul Harvey broadcast played over the Far East Network in Japan in the 1970s.

2. Figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

3. Source.
* New research  published last month "in the journal New Phytologist, show that the chili pepper tribe (Capsiceae) within the tomato, or nightshade (Solanaceae), family is much older and was much more widespread than previously thought. Scientists previously believed that chili peppers evolved in South America at most 15 million years ago, but new research pushes that date to at least 50 million years ago—and suggests that chili peppers were in fact present in North America at that time."

By John Sailors

Enrique of Malacca's Voyage, updated from 4/16/23 12:50 PM

(C) 2023 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.

See Also:

Antonio Pigafetta's account of the Magellan-Elcano voyage gives us both first-hand historical detail and color—the human aspects of the journey. The Italian scholar learned all he could about the cultures that Magellan's fleet encountered, even sitting down and recording samples of languages.

An excellent example of Pigafetta's curiosity and fascination is his description of the coconut and the palm tree, which he learned about soon after the fleet's arrival in the Philippines. Like the pineapple Magellan tried in Rio, the coconut was unknown. "Cocoanuts are the fruit of the palmtree. Just as we have bread, wine, oil, and milk, so those people get everything from that tree. Read more.