A Little Tomato History

Happy to oblige, reader Leeza. Xtomatl is the original Aztec word for the tomato. The “x” is pronounced as sort of a guttoral “h”, or so I understand, making the word sound something like heetomatl. Of course I’m no speaker of Nahuatl. Neither were the Spaniards as it happened. They simply called the things “tomat-es”.

By now you’ve no doubt deduced that the tomato is a New World fruit. Like corn, it was identified as a potentially viable cash crop by the Spaniards. But unlike corn, it took considerable time for the Old World to fully adopt it. For tomatoes (along with eggplant and potatoes) are members of the nightshade family, a group of plants that were known to contain a host of toxic (sometimes deadly) alkaloids. The same was true of the eggplant and the potato, which were likewise greeted with, shall we say, reserve, when they arrived in the early 1500’s.

It took almost 100 years for the Spaniards to start eating them rather than merely decorating their gardens with them. Of course they weren’t alone in their suspicions. The French thought the tomato was a poison at first, but eventually decided it was an aphrodisiac, hence the French name pomme d’amour (love apple). The Germans took a somewhat dimmer view. In Germanic culture nightshades were thought to be linked with lycanthropy (werewolf-ism) and so they called the tomato the “wolf peach”.

For all of that, by 1700 or so, most Europeans were eating at least some tomatoes, though it still took another hundred years before they were actually enjoying them. Here in America, Thomas Jefferson was growing and eating tomatoes in 1800, but then he was what you might call “a dandy”. Almost no one dared touch the things until after the Civil War, at which time America’s appreciation for the tomato exploded.

11 thoughts on “A Little Tomato History”

  1. Its hilarious that, in the American mind, Italian cooking = tomatoes. I have had some nice Italian food without the love apples but it sure is a rarity.

    I knew about the European reluctance but was not aware of that in the US.

    1. The southern Italians did embrace them with particular verve, but your point is well taken. But yes, we here in the States were every bit as trepidatious…at least until we discovered green tomato pie.

      – Joe

    2. I’d always heard that the first ‘Italian’ dish featuring tomato was marinara sauce. In this version, the first major adopters of the tomato were pan-Mediterranean sailors and fishermen. On longer voyages, their produce would get used or rot, but due to the tomato’s high acidity (compared to European veggies) it would be the last to turn. Hence the name “mariner’s” sauce.

      I’ve also heard of this myth confining marinara to seafood-based tomato sauces, with sweet, American-beloved tomato sauce falling into the category of “Neapolitan” sauce.

      1. I’ve heard similar stories. I don’t know if any of them are true, but at least they’re interesting!


        – Joe

  2. Actually, the Nahuatl orthographic stands for the sound /?/, which is English orthography (source: Launey & Mackay 2011. An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl. ).

    Also, I believe that you have a typo in the Nahuatl word; It should be Xitomatl

    1. (Sorry brackets screwed with the html)

      Nahuatl orthography <x> is approximately English orthography <sh>

    2. Nice to have a little expertise on the scene, CL. Mrs. Pastry knows some Zapotec, but that’s the extent of the Pastry family endangered Mesoamerican languages brain trust. Cheers!

      – Joe

  3. hey. Ana here, from Mexico.

    not a native náhuatl speaker, but I recently discussed this with one, so my pronunciation is correct. /shictómatl/ is the correct way of referring to the red berries known all over the world as “tomatoes”. the suffix -tómatl actually means something akin to berry–round squishy fruit. reportedly, there were six types of tomatin, and in Mexico we still have the red tomatoes and the green tomatoes (xictomatl and miltomatl, respectively).
    xic– means navel, although I haven’t been able to find if this should refer to the little bump at the buttom of the tomatoe (making it an outie) or at the white scar that is left once you pluck out the stem (making it an innie). I have never found a picture of the so-called xitomatl, but according to one náhuatl dictionary I consulted it exists as a separate plant.
    there are a lot of explanations for the change from xictomatl
    to tomate, basically the fact that in Spanish you don’t get the sh sound, and that to this day they have trouble joining t and l (all Mexicans have mastered the art of saying them as a single letter). so of course they simplified the word to make it more suitable to their own tongues.
    for some reason (possibly the fact that American food was not considered high-brow, or even a valid cultural manifestation, but Italian was), tomatoes have indeed become synonymous with Italy (the scientific name is in Latin, and a Latin that refers to warewolves), to the point that some linguists actually point to the Italian pommodoro as the etimology of tomatoe, and I have more than once seen movies and books depicting them as “wild berries” to be found in medieval Italy and Europe.

    1. oh, jitomate (pronounced closely to /heetomate/) is the way we call it in the centre of Mexico today, but the word does spark a debate about whether the official name should be jitomate or tomate, the way it is called all over the Spanish-speaking world

      1. Very interesting. I continue to be amazed at the way vocabulary changes throughout the Spanish speaking world, and indeed even from place to place within Mexico. I’m not a Spanish speaker, but Mrs. Pastry is a professor of Spanish and a translator. Through her I’ve come to appreciate how many different words there are for various food items around Central and South America. It’s fascinating.

        Thanks again, Ana!

        – Joe

    2. Wonderful, Ana. Thanks so much. What I life I lead! Not only do I get to blog about pastry, history and science most every day, but there’s always an expert waiting in the wings when I need to be rescued!

      Life is good.


      – Joe

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