Stupid Question ™
Sept. 28, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: Why were tomatoes once thought to be poisonous, and who the first person to eat one anyway?
A: The idea that people lived in fear of an attack of killer tomatoes until some hero boldly gulped one down is 99 percent poppycock.
The unknown Mayan who first tried tomatoes had no such fear. Neither did the Aztec diners who followed, nor the Spanish Conquistadors who arrived in the 1520s and described the tomato as wholesome and yummy.
Neither did the Spaniards, Italians and French who started eating tomatoes as soon as the Conquistadors brought them back home.
There was no fear until the tomato came to northern Europe, especially in England and her colonies. Many factors influenced English suspicion of the tomato, but it all comes down to this: the tomato was a funny-tasting, bad-smelling foreign plant in a country that didn’t much like fruits and veggies in the first place.
In Spain and Italy, the tomato had been imported specifically as a food crop. But it came to England as a scientific specimen. Herbalist John Gerard grew England’s first tomatoes around 1590 and pronounced them not only “ranke and stinking” but “colde” as well.
Gerard declared the cold, wet berry unwholesome eating in northern countries.
With this bad news, and the fact that tomatoes were a pain to grow in England anyway, the plant was relegated to ornamental and medicinal use only. It wasn’t until the more cosmopolitan 1750s that tomatoes started to be eaten on a large scale.
Similarly, the southern colonies started eating tomatoes long before the northern ones. Tomatoes were growing in the Carolinas in the 1680s. It wasn’t until around 1820 that they caught on nationally.
It does appear that in some American cases, resistance was founded on the idea that tomatoes were “poisonous.” But what does “poisonous” mean?
Tomato leaves and stems are toxic—but only in large amounts.
Whatever the factors, they’re basically just excuses for the same old problem: a new food being introduced in an era of conservative eating habits.
The extent of belief in “poison” tomatoes has also been wildly exaggerated as an explanation for why the most popular fruit in the country went unused for so long. Tomato expert Andrew Smith has found only three “poison” references that date to before 1860.
Similarly, the hundreds of tales about some hero publicly eating tomatoes to prove they’re not poisonous are mythological bunk.
The best-known of these credits Robert Gibbon Johnson for eating tomatoes on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey in 1820. The story is a fabrication.
In fact, it’s unknown whether Johnson ever ate a tomato in his life—but it’s certain someone did before him, since he himself owned an 1812 cookbook that contained a tomato recipe.