Today I am investigating tomatoes. Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Common sense tells me that it is a fruit, but it really depends on how you define those two things. I also want to look at why people once thought tomatoes were evil, but more of that shortly. Botanically, a fruit is the fertilized ovum of a flower, which contains seeds. While that doesn’t make it sound very appetizing, it certainly describes a tomato. Yet on this day in 1893, the United States Government declared it to be, legally, a vegetable.
Ten years earlier, a law had been passed a law that required an import duty of 10% to be levied on vegetables but not on fruit. Then, in 1886, a family named Nevis imported a whole load of tomatoes from the Caribbean and refused to pay the duty, as a tomato was clearly a fruit. They wound up in the Supreme Court and both sides argued their case strongly. For both, the evidence seems to have partly consisted of calling ‘expert’ witnesses who sold both fruit and vegetables and asking what they thought. But mostly, it was the lawyers simply reading out dictionary definitions of fruit and vegetables. The defendants favoured peas, aubergines, cucumbers, squashes and peppers, while the plaintiff went with potatoes, turnips, parsnips, cauliflower, carrots and beans. For reasons I don’t understand, it took them six years to settle the matter, but eventually the court came down unanimously on the side of ‘vegetable’. They decided this was definitely the case because tomatoes are served with a main meal and not as a dessert. Oddly, the judge was able to refer to an earlier similar case in which someone had tried to argue that beans were seeds. By the same definition; cucumber, peppers and pumpkins are also vegetables. Yet rhubarb is a fruit, despite the fact that it is a stalk.
Tomatoes have not, historically, been a universally popular fruit. Originally, they came from South America. They went down well in the south of Europe but not so much in the north or in some parts of North America. In fact, people thought they were poisonous. One of my many jobs is dinner lady in a primary school and, as I have watched children laboriously pick them out of their bolognaise, I’m pretty sure that belief is still with some of us.
Many believed that eating tomatoes would cause appendicitis, stomach cancer, brain fever or possibly turn a person’s blood to acid. In 1820, in Salem Massachusetts, a man named Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, was determined to prove to everyone that they would cause no harm, by publicly eating a tomato on the steps of the courthouse. He did this before a shocked audience and against the advice of his doctor. The Colonel’s story is one of those that has so many versions, we can’t know what really happened. Perhaps he ate one tomato, maybe he ate a whole basket full. Perhaps a woman in the crowd screamed and fainted as he took the first bite. Maybe two thousand people turned out to witness his weird public suicide, maybe there were less than that. I’m pretty sure that he wore a tricorne hat whilst he was eating them. It is certainly possible that he was accompanied by a tune from the fireman’s band. They might have struck up a merry tune, but some insist they played a dirge, which would definitely have been funnier.
The main problem people had with the tomato, the thing that made them deeply suspicious, was the fact that the tomato bears a striking resemblance to deadly nightshade which is very poisonous. Everyone knew that witches used deadly nightshade in their flying ointment or to summon up werewolves or something. In fact, the tomato is related to the deadly nightshade, they both belong to the ‘solanum’ family. Then, at the end of the seventeenth century, a man called Joseph Pitton de Tournefort further classified the tomato as ‘Solanum lycopersicum’. The ‘lycopersicum’ part translates as ‘wolf peach’, which didn’t do much for the reputation of the tomato. A secondary problem was that rich people used to eat from plates made from pewter. The acidic nature of the tomatoes used to cause the lead from the pewter to leech out into the food. Lead is certainly not good for you. Poorer people ate from wooden bowls, so they didn’t have that problem. Also, luckily, the Italians invented pizza and bolognaise and they were so good that everyone pretty much overcame their fear of the tomato. Apart perhaps from small children, but they’ll get over it. Don’t eat any other parts of a tomato plant though. Because the rest of it is poisonous…