Did People Think Tomatoes Were Poisonous?

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Did People Think Tomatoes Were Poisonous?

Sometimes curiosity leads to rabbit holes.

I was curious about tomatoes, so I did a bit of research.  I came across “The History of the Use of the Tomato: An Annotated Bibliography” by George Allen McCue, Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden Vol. 39, No. 4 (Nov., 1952), pp. 289-348, as well as “The history of tomato: From domestication to biopharming” by VéroniqueBergougnoux, Biotechnology Advances Volume 32, Issue 1, January–February 2014, Pages 170-189. And they give some very interesting information and about what people thought of tomatoes in the 16th and 17th centuries.

First some quick info on when they were introduced through to when they were eaten widely:

  • Before contact they were in common consumption from northern South America to Mexico.
  • They were introduced to Europe in Spain and Italy mid 16th century.
  • We have the first cooking directions in the early 17th century in Italy, France, and England.
  • They’re in common consumption by the early 18th century across Europe.

In the 16th century there are a few people saying they’re not tasty or they don’t offer much nourishment, and I did find one reference to it being (ambiguously) harmful to you if you eat it. Remember that while Nightshades in the Americas are generally harmless, Nightshades in Europe are generally poisonous so caution is warranted. There was a great deal of use of it as a medicinal plant rather than a food plant, which is in line with the uses for European nightshades.. The earliest speculation on why people didn’t start eating tomatoes earlier (written in the mid 18th century) say that it was because they thought it was bad luck, which could be because it was used medicinally.

The earliest reference I see to it being poisonous is from 1666 in Germany, so about a hundred years after it was introduced, but less than fifty years before it explodes across Europe as a being a great food, especially as a sauce. Even after it goes into wide consumption it is still occasionally listed as being poisonous in some botanical books (again, only German ones), but it’s probably because they’re copying older botanical books without checking the information, or the Germans were just stubborn and kept claiming it was poison as the rest of Europe kept eating it. So short version is that I’m pretty sure only the Germans thought they were poisonous.

Oh, and from what I can tell the story about them leaching lead from plates and poisoning people that way seems to be a myth.

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