Imagine life without tomatoes. This was the grim situation in Europe before 1492. Imagine Szechuan food without chili peppers, or Irish stew without potatoes, or the Swiss without chocolate. For heaven’s sake, what did they eat? These foods are all native to the Americas, and were unknown to the poor sad benighted Europeans before Columbus stumbled on a pair of continents he didn’t think existed, unleashing new and wonderful culinary delights on an unsuspecting Old World. And I didn’t even mention avocados. Or corn on the cob.
Tomato plants were first introduced to Europe as ornamentals, gracing gardens with their lovely bright red fruits which, for a time, were thought to be poisonous. This may have been because they’re in the Deadly Nightshade family, or because the acid in them leached lead from the pewter dinnerware of the time, or – my favorite – because they were used in cooking first in Spain and Italy where all those Borgias and Medici were always poisoning each other. But eventually their spectacular flavor overcame these foolish prejudices.
Then there’s the argument, or anyway the conversation, about whether they are a fruit or a vegetable. Technically a fruit, I get that, but I’m not thinking “fruit” when I cook them with pasta and meatballs. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in her Little House series that her mother served tomatoes as a dessert, with cream and sugar. I tried it and the taste was good, in a demented-berry kind of way, but I couldn’t get my head around it. I wanted to whip them out of there and lay on the bacon, lettuce, and mayonnaise.
Today commemorates the day when the people, places, and foods of the Western and Eastern Hemispheres became known to each other. Contact was as catastrophic to those with the less-effective weapons as it was beneficial to those with the more-effective ones, the same story all the world over, for as far back as we know. Every group alive today has had a turn at being the conqueror, and developing its own set of arts and sciences to contribute to the whole human enterprise. Somewhere in their past, Aztec farmers nourished, encouraged, and improved the tomato. For that they have my deepest thanks.