Culinary and cultural acceptance of the tomato

A brief history of the tomato almost makes it seem as if the tomato was an instant success story in Europe and Northern America. This wasn’t exactly the case.

The tomato is a member of the nightshade family. This is quite a remarkable group of plants with various qualities and appearances. Interestingly this family contains several of the world’s most favourite vegetables: potatoes, eggplants, tomators, bellpeppers and chillies and the tomatillo. Some nightshade family members we even smoke: tabacco.

In general the members of the nightshade family invest heavily in chemical warfare as a defense against pests and grazing, in the form of potent alkoids. For many of our popular vegetables in this family there has been a long period of artificial selection to get rid of some of these defenses. In the popular opinion the resemblance to their poisonous family members often meant that there was a general reluctance to accept edible members. For instance, the leaves of nightshade plants are often the site of toxic alkoids. Even to this day it is often thought that the leaves of tomato plants are poisonous for this very reason. Tomato leaves have a lovely herbal scent and only recently it has become accepted to use tomato leaves in recipes. There is a toxin in tomato leaves called tomatine, but the amount is so tiny that only unrealistic large quantities would have a negative effect. The exposure to tomatine is not new. It can also be found in tomato varieties with green fruit and in green tomato chutney.

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