Poison Tomatoes

Poison Tomatoes

Those folk beliefs about tomatoes being poisonous are not vindicated by the current outbreak of Salmonella in the U.S. tomato supply. The origin of these beliefs is quite different.

Tomatoes were native to the New World, possibly originating in the coastal highlands of what is now Peru before their cultivation in Central America and Mexico. The conquistadors brought them to the Caribbean, Europe, and Philippines, where they entered the local cuisines.

Botanists insist the tomato is a fruit, but the U.S. Supreme Court (“NIX vs. HEDDEN,” 1893) has ruled that is it a vegetable. I await the high court’s repeal of the law of gravity before taking another airplane ride.

Initially considered a separate plant family, the Lycopersicon (“wolf-peach”)  was re-classified as a member of the poisonous nightshade family, but this also includes petunias, tobacco, chili peppers, sweet peppers, eggplant and potatoes. In point of fact, all parts of the tomato plant but the fruit contain poisonous glycoalkaloids (wild tomato leaves and stems are much more toxic).

The plant was initially grown as decoration in England and its colonies, where some believed that eating the fruit would turn the blood acid and poison the diner. This was odd, since the Brits bloody well knew that southern Europeans ate tomatoes; perhaps they thought that hot-blooded Latins were immune to these “poisonous” acids. 

Tomato recipes start appearing in Britain in the 1600s, and “tommies” are well-accepted there today, warmed until messy and tasteless as part of the famed English Breakfast. Anglo-Americans were stubborn hold-outs until the early 1700s, and some folks won’t eat the things today, even when there isn’t a Salmonella problem.

To repeat, cooking tomatoes kills any Salmonella microbes, and no one today has complained of problems from eating raw cherry or grape tomatoes, or tomatoes sold with the vine attached. There have been no fatalities from the current Salmonella outbreak, just dozens of folks who probably wish they were dead.

And don’t forget the other great reputation of the tomato as aphrodisiac “love apple” (poma amoris, pomme d’amour).  More marinara sauce, my dear?


Image by Mike Licht, a scandal-mongering, tabloid sensationalist. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital

One Response to “Poison Tomatoes”

  1. Food history: ketchup - ErinLanders.com Says:

    […] Photo credit: NotionsCapital.com […]

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