An Irishwoman’s Diary: Hot tomatoes

Rich history of a wonder food

Why did people of the 19th century consider tomatoes to be poisonous? The answer lies in the origin of tomatoes. Photograph: Frank Miller

Why did people of the 19th century consider tomatoes to be poisonous? The answer lies in the origin of tomatoes. Photograph: Frank Miller


My elderly American cousin was talking tomatoes as she drove me into Salem to walk the heritage trail and visit the courthouse. Tomatoes were the last thing on my mind. I was thinking witch trials.

“It is the second-oldest courthouse still in use in the United States, ” she told me proudly. “Tomatoes have been designated as the state vegetable of New Jersey. ” But what could she tell me about the witches? She looked at me with a puzzled frown. “This is Salem, New Jersey, dear. The witch trials were in Salem, Massachusetts”.

So no witches here but as we stood facing the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, she told me what happened there right where we were standing. It had a lot to do with tomatoes and it has become a legend.

It begins back in the year 1820. The square here in Salem, New Jersey, is crowded with more than 2,000 people who have come to watch an execution. The condemned man is Col Robert Gibbon Johnson and he is to die by poisoning.

And, not alone that, the poison will be administered by his own hand.

A hush descends upon the gathered crowd as the colonel jauntily climbs the steps of the courthouse. With exaggerated theatrical gestures, he halts, turns and holds up a basket full of crimson fruit – or is it vegetables?

Everyone in the square gasps and holds their breath as the colonel removes one object from the basket, holds it aloft and then sinks his teeth into its fleshy pulp. Women faint. Men lean forward to catch the Col Johnson’s final words.

And what happens?


The colonel takes another object from the basket and bites into it. There is another loud gasp from his audience. Surely, this is certain death, they think. The fiasco continues and the colonel remains unaffected and upright even after eating every single thing from the basket, thereby proving, without doubt, that tomatoes are non-poisonous and edible.

Why did people of the 19th century consider tomatoes to be poisonous? The answer lies in the origin of tomatoes. They are native to the Andes region of Chile, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. They were first domesticated in Mexico where they were discovered by Spanish conquistadors in 1519. Pausing briefly amid all the slaughter and plunder, they discovered tomatoes growing in the garden of Montezuma, ruler of Mexico. Cortés brought home the seeds with him and tomatoes were grown in Europe for the first time in the gardens of Renaissance Spain.

From there the tomato moved into France where it was considered to be an aphrodisiac and named pomme d’amour – the love apple. Others called it “wolf peach” – “wolf” because it was believed to be poisonous and “peach” because of its shape and texture.

It was an Italian herbalist who put the tin hat on it. In 1544 Pietro Andrea Mattioli classified tomatoes with mandrake, henbane and deadly nightshade – pure poison, in fact. Who in their right mind would eat one then? Some 300 years later it took Col Robert Gibbon Johnson to perform his death-defying feat by publicly eating tomatoes on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey.

Now where would we be without tomatoes? We eat them raw, stewed, sundried, baked and fried and we include them in all sorts of meat dishes. They’re made into soups, juice, ketchup, relish, pickles, sauces, pizzas and salsa, to name but a few.

The debate continues as to whether the tomato is a vegetable or a fruit. Botanists tell us that the tomato is a fruit, even though in 1883 the US supreme court decreed that the tomato is a vegetable.

This court case was brought about because a New Jersey importer refused to pay an import tariff on tomatoes, arguing that technically they are fruits.

While the learned justices agreed that botanically the tomato is a fruit, they ruled that tomatoes are commonly regarded as vegetables and therefore are subject to tax.

My elderly American cousin, long gone now, was a mine of information on the subject of tomatoes. Every time I slice into one I think of her and, of course, Col Robert Gilbert Johnson on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, back in 1820.

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