A tomato by any other name would taste as sweet. The Aztecs first called them tomatl, literally meaning "the swelling fruit;" in Spain their were known as pome dei Moro (apple of the Moors); the French called them pomme d’amour (apple of love); an Italian botanist named them pomo d’oro (golden apple). Its botanical name, Lycopersicon esculentum, translates to "wolf peach" after it was mistaken for a 3rd century Galen poison used to kill wolves (and warewolves!).
As a member of the Nightshade family (like the potato), European folklore warned that if you ate a tomato, its poison would turn your blood into acid.
Unlike Europeans, native peoples of South and Central America believed the tomato to be a powerful fruit: both an aphrodisiac and also a key to divination. The tomato is likely the progeny of a Peruvian herbaceous plant with small green fruits. When this species was domesticated, the Aztecs produced the earliest edible tomato, yellow and cherry in size.
Following Spanish Colonization of the Americas, tomatoes made their way around the globe. The Spanish distributed tomatoes throughout their colonies: to the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and to Europe. Though generally dated to 1512, some historians believe that Christopher Columbus may have taken them back to Europe as early as 1493. The tomato grew easily in Mediterranean climates and cultivation there began in the 1540’s. Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590’s and it took another few hundred years for tomatoes to be widely adopted as edibles in Britain. By the end of the 18th century, the Encyclopedia Britannica stated the tomato was used in soups, broths, and as a garnish.
In North America, tomatoes were being grown from as early at 1710. It is unclear whether they were brought to America by the British or via the Caribbean. Tomatoes have become a staple crop in the US Sunbelt, particularly in California and Florida.
Tomatoes are now grown worldwide, with thousands of cultivars available. In 2008, China was the top tomato producer, followed by the US, then Turkey. Genetic modification is common in tomatoes, which is why heirloom tomatoes are generally your best bet. Unlike commercial tomatoes, heirlooms are self-pollinators that have been bred true for 40 years or more. Heirlooms are more flavourful and exhibit greater variety in colour, form, and texture. Varieties include such categories as beefsteak, Oxheart, plum, Campari, cherry, grape, pear, and currant.
Tomatoes are high in lycopene, one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. Lycopene becomes more accessible to the body via cooking and has been shown to help prevent prostate cancer and improve the skin’s ability to protect against UV rays. Tomatoes are an excellent source for vitamin C and contain significant amounts of vitamins A and B, including niacin, riboflavin, magnesium, phosphorous, and calcium.
Tomatoes can been eaten raw, cooked, roasted, grilled, sun dried…any way you please! Add tomatoes to bean or vegetable soups; enjoy them in the classic Italian salad of sliced onion, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese drizzled with olive oil; make a fresh salsa with onions, tomatoes, chili peppers and some lime juice; puree them with cucumber, bell peppers, green onions, and basil and voila, you’ve got gazpacho!
FYI: though the tomato fruit is not poisonous, the leaves of a tomato plant are!