MYTH # 64: Early Americans thought tomatoes were poisonous.

(Thanks to Eric P. Olsen of Morristown National Historical Park for suggesting this one.)

Tomatoes were an important component in the great Columbian Exchange (the introduction of Old World animals and plants to the New World, and vice versa). Imagine the Italians without tomatoes! But Europe had no such fruit until the fifteen hundreds, when Spanish explorers discovered the tomato, a native of South America that was first cultivated in Central America, and brought it home. A myth has grown up that European colonizers thought the tomato was poisonous. This is an exaggeration. The truth is that some Englishmen believed this in the 1600s and early 1700s.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to notice the tomato in Mexico in the 1500s. “Tomatl” is an Aztec word. It spread to Spain and Portugal, then to Italy through Naples, which was then a Spanish city, and later to France from Naples. The Italians called them “pomi d’oro,” or golden apples, which suggests that the first tomatoes were yellow ones. (Remember that the next time you see pasta pomodoro on the menu.)

In 1597, John Gerard, a rather unreliable British barber/surgeon and naturalist, published a book, Herball, or General Historie of Plants, in which he stated that the tomato was poisonous, even while acknowledging that French and Italians ate the thing. Presumably they weren’t quite human. This statement, according to Jim Gay of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, “set the stage for the negative view of tomatoes in the British and American diet that was to last for the next two centuries.” Negative doesn’t necessarily mean deathly poisonous—obviously the English knew that other people ate them and survived. According to Andrew F. Smith in his 1994 book, The Tomato in America (which I meant to just skim but it was so interesting, I couldn’t stop reading), the tomato was eaten in soups in England in the 1750s and is mentioned in the famous English cookbook of 1758 by Hannah Glasse. By the 1780s, tomato sauce was widely used in England.  

What about America? By the early 1700s, most Americans were quite aware that tomatoes were edible, and they ate them with pleasure. The Carolinians and Floridians had them first, from the Spanish colonies in Florida or the French Huguenots who immigrated to Carolina, or from immigrants, black and white, from the Caribbean—no one is quite sure. The earliest American recipe occurs in 1770 in South Carolina.

So did Thomas Jefferson introduce the tomato to America? Nope. That’s an other myth. Probably Jewish merchants introduced the fruit, probably because they were widely engaged in trade and because most were of Spanish or Portuguese descent and so were familiar with tomatoes from the 1500s. Jefferson only enters into the story because he wrote that a Jewish friend, Dr. John DeSequeyra, introduced the tomato the Virginia sometime after his arrival in Williamsburg in 1745. This seems to be true. No one at the time seemed alarmed by its poisonous properties. Tomatoes finally worked their way north to the northern colonies/states late in the 18th century.

There is a terrific short story by Richard M. Gordon called “The Murder of George Washington” that was published in the Ellery Queen magazine in 1959. I read it in the Sixties—can’t imagine how or where—but I remember it well. It’s about a Loyalist cook who decides to kill General Washington and makes a recipe with tomatoes in it. He serves the general and then gets the heck out of camp, because he doesn’t want to be nearby when Washington dies. It’s a well-written story, with one flaw—I don’t believe that any American colonists considered tomatoes poisonous in the late 18th century.

So, yes, in the 1600s, some Englishmen in England and in the American colonies thought the tomato was poisonous. By the 1700s, they knew better. Contemporary Italians, Portuguese, French, and Spanish never labored under any such illusions. According to Andrew Smith, only three of the 12,000 references to tomatoes that he found between 1544 and 1860 mentioned poisonous tomatoes: one was a reprint of an out-of-date British medical book, one was a facetious comment in a newspaper that ridiculed the idea, and the other was Jefferson’s grandson who said that his granddad told him that in his youth, some thought it was poisonous.

9 Responses to MYTH # 64: Early Americans thought tomatoes were poisonous.

  1. Sei Paulson says:

    Aw man. One of my massive history peeves! The idea that because ONE person thought something, EVERYONE thought that… Oh, people used to think tomatoes were poisonous because you read it in Gerard’s Herbal? God forbid future historians should find a copy of The Daily Mail.

  2. Kyle Morgan says:

    Thanks for doing this research and publishing your findings. I remembered hearing that Europeans thought that tomatoes were poisonous in the 1700’s, and was wondering what the literature of the time actually said.🙂

  3. Patti Ingram says:

    Yay, I have wondered about this for a loooong time. Thanks!

  4. therealguyfaux says:

    Gerard probably thought that tomatoes, being a rather large version of nightshade, one berry of which won’t kill you, but enough will (and just one of them isn’t going to leave you feeling very well, either), there must be SOME potential for poisoning. He may well have thought the “foreigners” had somehow figured out a way to neutralize the “poison,” probably by cooking it sufficiently. Some vine-ripened tomato varieties (as opposed to varieties picked green and allowed to ripen a la bananas), if not consumed right away when picked, might give you indigestion, certainly, but a lot of different fruits will do, as well. The “ripe tomatoes may be hazardous to your health” meme probably wasn’t put to bed for good till, as the legend has it, in New Jersey, in the 1820’s, a tomato grower invited people to watch him eat some as he stood on the courthouse steps, right in the town square, and he came off none the worse for doing so, either right then, hours later, or the following day.

    The “poison-tomato” idea may have had SOME initial plausibility, you would think, but for it to have lingered so long (three centuries) IS a bit astounding.

  5. Kit says:

    Thank you realguyfaux, I had forgotten about the nightshade relationship. At Plimoth Plantation in the late 1980s we would tell visitors that tomatoes were a hot fruit–bright red inside and out–and thus unsuitable for English to eat–cool damp individuals from a cool, damp climate–but were fine for Spaniards and Italians, hot climate, hot tempers, and all. Perhaps that explains Captain Standish’s fiery temper–too many tomatoes? Kit

  6. Hannah says:

    Aww, does that mean the Thomas Jefferson tomato story isn’t true?

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