The Unpoisoned Fruit

The Unpoisoned Fruit

The most prominent citizen of Salem, New Jersey, challenged death before 2,000 spectators over 175 years ago. How? Simply by eating a tomato!

It is difficult to find a modern home gardener who doesn't include tomatoes as part of his crop. Therefore, it's hard to believe that many of our ancestors wouldn't have allowed a tomato within sight of their kitchens.

The word tomato is a modern adaptation of the Aztec word tomatl. The invading Spaniards saw the tomatl growing in Montezuma's garden in 1519. Although not much impressed, Cortes did bring some of the seeds back to Spain along with more spectacular loot. Tomato plants were soon growing in the gardens of Renaissance Spain. A visiting Frenchman described the tomato as pomme d'amour, or love apple, and it took on the reputation of being a mild aphrodisiac.

Along with its aura of being a love potion, the tomato was believed to pack a poisonous wallop. This was doubtless due to the first botanical description made in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian herbalist. He linked the tomato to such disreputable relatives as mandrake, henbane, and deadly nightshade.

This association of tomatoes was certainly a significant deterrent to eating them and was probably the reason for a 300—year intermission before the tomato became accepted as a regular ingredient in the human diet. Its reputation continued to be maligned, and finally, at the end of the sixteenth century, the tomato was nicknamed the "wolf peach," wolf because of its poisonous qualities and peach because it was deceptively luscious in appearance. This nickname, which in Latin is Lycopersicon, became the modern scientific name for the tomato.

Despite years of bad publicity, some Europeans did, without any ill effects, include the tomato in their diets and were doubtless willing to provide testimonials to its aphrodisiac qualities. In the American colonies, however, the people adopted the negative European attitude toward the tomato — and then some. Clergymen and physicians generally denounced it for both moral and health reasons. Pilgrims considered the tomato an abomination as shameful as theater attendance, dancing, or card playing. It is recorded that one intolerably liberal pastor in New England was fired by his congregation because he grew tomatoes in his kitchen garden.

Thomas Jefferson, who was a talented, innovative gardener and an enthusiastic epicure, included tomatoes in his vegetable garden. He described them in his journal as a food plant and assured readers that they made an admirable preserve. Nothing much has been recorded about the reaction of the people to Jefferson's tomato patch, except John Adam's Puritanical reference to his spectacular cuisine as "sinful feasts."

On September 25, 1820, in front of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, the tomato was put on trial, and a giant step was taken toward its acceptance as an edible fruit. It was there and then that the courageous Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson decided to prove to the world, or at least to the residents of Salem, that the tomato was not only safe to eat but also delicious and nutritious.

Col. Johnson had probably discovered the truth about tomatoes while traveling extensively in Europe. He brought back plantings and encouraged local farmers to grow tomatoes as ornaments. Each year at the county fair he offered prizes for the largest and most attractive tomatoes but could never convince anyone to take the first bite. The townspeople remained fearful of what medical authorities had said the tomato would do. Reactions would be immediate, and death would be agonizing.

Determined to end this farce once and for all, Johnson publicly announced he would eat a wolf peach. His neighbors were aghast. Even his personal physician declared, "The Colonel will froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis."

Undaunted, Johnson appeared in public with a basket of tomatoes and said, "The time will come when this fruit will form the foundation of a great garden industry, recognized and eaten and enjoyed as an edible food. And now, to help dispel the scandalous tales, the wretched fables about this thing — to prove to you once and for all that it is not poisonous and will not strike you dead — I'm going to eat one immediately."

At the conclusion of that statement Johnson quickly took his first bite of a large, shiny red tomato. One woman screamed; another fainted. By the time he had finished his second tomato the crowd was cheering wildly.

From the very beginning Johnson's physician had been standing by, expecting the worst. Quick to realize his medical opinion had been dispelled, he snapped shut his medical bag and pulled an embarrassed and unnoticed tactical retreat. All the while, Johnson was consuming the entire basket of tomatoes.

Shortly afterward, Americans began to eat tomatoes, and the colonel lived a long and healthy life to the age of seventy—nine.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth