The word ‘tomato‘ may refer to the plant (Solanum lycopersicum) or the edible, typically red, fruit that it bears. Having originated in America, the tomato was spread around the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas, and its many varieties are now widely grown, often in greenhouses in cooler climates.

The tomato is consumed in diverse ways, including raw, as an ingredient in many dishes and sauces, and in drinks. While it is botanically a fruit (a plant structure that contains its seeds), it is considered a vegetable for culinary purposes. The fruit is rich in lycopene (a carotene), which may have beneficial health effects.

The tomato belongs to the nightshade family. Aztecs and other peoples in Mesoamerica were the first people to use the fruit in their cooking. The exact date of domestication is unknown: by 500 BCE, it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico and probably other areas. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtítlan, now Mexico City, in 1521, although Christopher Columbus, a Genoese working for the Spanish monarchy, may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in an herbal written in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who suggested that a new type of eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant—that is, cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. However it wasn’t until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as ‘pomi d’oro,’ or ‘golden apple.’

After the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. They also took it to the Philippines, from where it spread to southeast Asia and then the entire Asian continent. The Spanish also brought the tomato to Europe. It grew easily in Mediterranean climates, and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, and was certainly being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692, though the author had apparently obtained these recipes from Spanish sources. In certain areas of Italy, such as Florence, however, the fruit was used solely as a tabletop decoration before it was incorporated into the local cuisine in the late 17th or early 18th century.

The recorded history of tomatoes in Italy dates back to October 31, 1548 when the house steward of Cosimo de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, wrote to the Medici private secretary informing him that the basket of tomatoes sent from the grand duke’s Florentine estate at Torre del Gallo ‘had arrived safely.’ Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they ‘were to be sought only for their beauty’ and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their proximity of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. Additionally, both toxic and inedible varieties discouraged many people from attempting to consume or prepare them.

Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. One of the earliest cultivators was John Gerard, a barber-surgeon. Gerard’s ‘Herbal,’ published in 1597, and largely plagiarized from continental sources, is also one of the earliest discussions of the tomato in England. Gerard knew the tomato was eaten in Spain and Italy. Nonetheless, he believed it was poisonous (in fact, the plant and raw fruit do have low levels of toxic tomatine, but are not generally dangerous). Gerard’s views were influential, and the tomato was considered unfit for eating (though not necessarily poisonous) for many years in Britain and its North American colonies. Tomatoes would not be widely eaten in Britain until the mid-18th century.

The tomato was introduced to cultivation in the Middle East/Asia by John Barker, British consul in Aleppo circa 1799 to 1825. Nineteenth century descriptions of its consumption are uniformly as an ingredient in a cooked dish. In 1881, it is described as only eaten in the region ‘within the last forty years.’ The tomato entered Iran through two separate routes: one was through Turkey and Armenia, and the other was through the Qajar royal family’s frequent travels to France. The early name used for tomato in Iran was ‘Armani badenjan’ (‘Armenian eggplant’). Currently, the name used for tomato in Iran is ‘gojeh farangi’ (‘French plum’).

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in British North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is today South Carolina. They may have been introduced from the Caribbean. By the mid-18th century, they were cultivated on some Carolina plantations, and probably in other parts of the Southeast as well. Possibly, some people continued to think tomatoes were poisonous at this time; and in general, they were grown more as ornamental plants than as food. Thomas Jefferson, who ate tomatoes in Paris, sent some seeds back to America.

Alexander W. Livingston was the first person who succeeded in upgrading the wild tomato, developing different breeds and stabilizing the plants. In the 1937 yearbook of the Federal Department of Agriculture, it was declared that ‘half of the major varieties were a result of the abilities of the Livingstons to evaluate and perpetuate superior material in the tomato.’ Livingston’s first breed of tomato, the Paragon, was introduced in 1870. In 1875, he introduced the Acme, which was said to be involved in the parentage of most of the tomatoes introduced by him and his competitors for the next twenty-five years.

When Livingston had begun his attempts to develop the tomato as a commercial crop, his aim had been to grow tomatoes smooth in contour, uniform in size and having better flavor. One year, after many attempts, he passed through his fields, picking out particular tomato plants having distinct characteristics and heavy foliage. He saved the seeds carefully. The following spring he set two rows across his family garden located just below the hill and milk house. To his happy surprise, each plant bore perfect tomatoes like the parent vine. After five years, the fruit became fleshier and larger. In 1870, Alexander introduced the Paragon and tomato culture began at once to be a great enterprise of the county. Today, the crop is grown in every state in the Union. He eventually developed over seventeen different varieties of the tomato plant.

Because of the long growing season needed for this heat-loving crop, several states in the US Sun Belt became major tomato-producers, particularly Florida and California. In California, tomatoes are grown under irrigation for both the fresh fruit market and for canning and processing. UC Davis became a major center for research on the tomato. The C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at UC Davis is a gene bank of wild relatives, monogenic mutants and miscellaneous genetic stocks of tomato. The Center is named for the late Dr. Charles M. Rick, a pioneer in tomato genetics research. Research on processing tomatoes is also conducted by the California Tomato Research Institute in Escalon, California.

In California, growers have used a method of cultivation called dry-farming, especially with Early Girl tomatoes. This technique encourages the plant to send roots deep to find existing moisture in soil that retains moisture, such as clayey soil. The poor taste and lack of sugar in modern garden and commercial tomato varieties resulted from breeding of tomatoes which ripen uniformly red. This change occurred after discovery of a variety in the mid 20th century which ripened uniformly which was then widely crossbred to produce attractive red fruit without the typical green ring surrounding the stem on uncross-bred varieties. Prior to general introduction of this trait tomatoes were able to produce more sugar during the process of ripening and were sweeter and more flavorful.

The tomato is now grown worldwide for its edible fruits, with thousands of cultivars having been selected with varying fruit types, and for optimum growth in differing growing conditions. Cultivated tomatoes vary in size, from tomberries, about 5 mm in diameter, through cherry tomatoes, about the same 1–2 centimeters (0.4–0.8 in) size as the wild tomato, up to beefsteak tomatoes 10 centimeters (4 in) or more in diameter. The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the 5–6 centimeters (2.0–2.4 in) diameter range. Most cultivars produce red fruit, but a number of cultivars with yellow, orange, pink, purple, green, black, or white fruit are also available. Multicolored and striped fruit can also be quite striking. Tomatoes grown for canning and sauces are often elongated, 7–9 centimeters (3–4 in) long and 4–5 centimeters (1.6–2.0 in) diameter; they are known as plum tomatoes, and have a lower water content. Roma-type tomatoes are important cultivars in the Sacramento Valley.

Tomatoes are one of the most common garden fruits in the United States and, along with zucchini, have a reputation for outproducing the needs of the grower. Quite a few seed merchants and banks provide a large selection of heirloom (older, less common) seeds. The definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, but unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-pollinators that have bred true for 40 years or more. There are around 7500 tomato varieties grown for various purposes. Heirloom tomatoes are becoming increasingly popular, particularly among home gardeners and organic producers, since they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops at the cost of disease resistance and productivity. In 1973, Israeli scientists developed the world’s first long shelf-life commercial tomato varieties. Hybrid plants remain common, since they tend to be heavier producers, and sometimes combine unusual characteristics of heirloom tomatoes with the ruggedness of conventional commercial tomatoes.

Tomato varieties are roughly divided into several categories, based mostly on shape and size. ‘Slicing’ or ‘globe’ tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating. Beefsteak tomatoes are large tomatoes often used for sandwiches and similar applications. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical. Oxheart tomatoes can range in size up to beefsteaks, and are shaped like large strawberries. Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a higher solids content for use in tomato sauce and paste, and are usually oblong.

Pear tomatoes are obviously pear-shaped, and are based upon the San Marzano types for a richer gourmet paste. Cherry tomatoes are small and round, often sweet tomatoes generally eaten whole in salads. Grape tomatoes, a more recent introduction, are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes, and used in salads. Campari tomatoes are also sweet and noted for their juiciness, low acidity, and lack of mealiness. They are bigger than cherry tomatoes, but are smaller than plum tomatoes. Early tomatoes and cool-summer tomatoes bear fruit even where nights are cool, which usually discourages fruit set. There are also varieties high in beta carotenes and vitamin A, hollow tomatoes and tomatoes that keep for months in storage.

Tomatoes are also commonly classified as determinate or indeterminate. Determinate, or bush, types bear a full crop all at once and top off at a specific height; they are often good choices for container growing. Determinate types are preferred by commercial growers who wish to harvest a whole field at one time, or home growers interested in canning. Indeterminate varieties develop into vines that never top off and continue producing until killed by frost. They are preferred by home growers and local-market farmers who want ripe fruit throughout the season. As an intermediate form, there are plants sometimes known as vigorous determinate or semideterminate; these top off like determinates, but produce a second crop after the initial crop. The majority of heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, although some determinate heirlooms exist.

In order to facilitate transportation and storage, tomatoes are often picked unripe (and thus colored green) and ripened in storage with ethylene. Unripe tomatoes are firm. As they ripen they soften until reaching the ripe state where they are red or orange in color and slightly soft to the touch. Ethylene is a hydrocarbon gas produced by many fruits that acts as the molecular cue to begin the ripening process. Tomatoes ripened in this way tend to keep longer, but have poorer flavor and a mealier, starchier texture than tomatoes ripened on the plant. They may be recognized by their color, which is more pink or orange than the other ripe tomatoes’ deep red, depending on variety. Recently, stores have begun selling ‘tomatoes on the vine,’ which are determinate varieties that are ripened or harvested with the fruits still connected to a piece of vine. These tend to have more flavor than artificially ripened tomatoes (at a price premium).

The tomato is now grown and eaten around the world. It is used in diverse ways, including raw in salads, and processed into ketchup or tomato soup. Unripe green tomatoes can also be breaded and fried, used to make salsa, or pickled. Tomato juice is sold as a drink, and is used in cocktails such as the Bloody Mary. Tomatoes are acidic, making them especially easy to preserve in home canning whole, in pieces, as tomato sauce or paste. The fruit is also preserved by drying, often in the sun, and sold either in bags or in jars with oil. Tomatoes are used extensively in Mediterranean cuisine. They are a key ingredient in pizza, and are commonly used in pasta sauces. They are also used in gazpacho (Spanish cuisine) and pa amb tomàquet (Catalan cuisine).

Leaves, stems, and green unripe fruit of the tomato plant contain small amounts of the toxic alkaloid tomatine. They also contain solanine, a toxic alkaloid found in potato leaves and other plants in the nightshade family. Use of tomato leaves in tea (tisane) has been responsible for at least one death. However, levels of tomatine in foliage and green fruit are generally too small to be dangerous unless large amounts are consumed, for example, as greens. Small amounts of tomato foliage are sometimes used for flavoring without ill effect, and the green fruit is sometimes used for cooking, particularly as fried green tomatoes. Compared to potatoes the amount of solanine in green or ripe tomatoes is low. Tomato plants can be toxic to dogs if they eat large amounts of the fruit, or chew plant material.

Botanically, a tomato is a fruit: the ovary, together with its seeds, of a flowering plant. However, the tomato has a much lower sugar content than other edible fruits, and is therefore not as sweet. Typically served as part of a salad or main course of a meal, rather than at dessert, it is considered a vegetable for most culinary uses. One exception is that tomatoes are treated as a fruit in home canning practices: they are acidic enough to be processed in a water bath rather than a pressure cooker as vegetables would require. Tomatoes are not the only food source with this ambiguity: green beans, eggplants, cucumbers, and squashes of all kinds (such as zucchini and pumpkins) are all botanically fruits, yet cooked as vegetables.

This dispute has led to legal speculation in the United States. In 1887, U.S. tariff laws that imposed a duty on vegetables, but not on fruits, caused the tomato’s status to become a matter of legal importance. The U.S. Supreme Court settled this controversy on May 10, 1893, by declaring that the tomato is a vegetable, based on the popular definition that classifies vegetables by use, that they are generally served with dinner and not dessert (‘Nix v. Hedden’).


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