How Witches and Expensive Dishes Stopped People from Eating Tomatoes
Europeans believed tomatoes were poisonous for some strange reasons.
Today, tomatoes are among the most ubiquitous summer produce. They're everywhere on seasonal menus and appear, growing in windowsills all over the place. But for hundreds of years, many Europeans believed tomatoes were, in fact, killers. They were believed to be so poisonous that with just one bite, death could come quickly and horribly. This is, of course, completely untrue. This myth, perpetuated for centuries, got support from a few places—tomatoes' close association with nightshade, tomatoes wrongly thought of as a source of lead and fears at the time of werewolves and witches. Yes, witches.
Here's why, for centuries, the tomato was edible enemy number one.
Native to Central and South America, tomatoes were part of the Aztecs' diet for nearly a millennium before Europeans even knew they existed. Rather than the flaming red color we know today, back then tomatoes held a yellowish hue, which was the reason the Aztecs called them "tomatl," meaning "golden apple."
In the early 16th century, Cortes and other Spanish conquistadors became the first Europeans to encounter tomatoes. But it was around 1540 though when the first round, tomato from the Americas floated across the Atlantic on a Spanish ship and landed on European shores. Immediately, because of its exotic origins, Europeans were skeptical. By the late 1500s, several notable publications and scientists declared the tomato poisonous and only good for adding color to a garden, but never to be eaten. Why? Well, there are to be several theories around why Europeans feared the tomato, some more absurd than others.
The first published reference of the tomato came from Italian herbalist Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who stuck the fruit in the same scientific classification (Solanaceae) as deadly nightshade—probably because the fruit and leaf structures look quite similar. The huge difference between the two though, is that deadly nightshade has tropane alkaloid and the tomato doesn't. Matthioli also claimed it to be a mandrake, a halogenic poisonous planet root long associated with sexual desires, hallucinations and temptation. This is where tomato's nickname "love apple" comes from. Mattioli's haphazard pairing of tomato with deadly nightshade likely contributed to European fears There's also a long-standing myth that eating tomato leaves can be deadly. More recent research published in the New York Times, found the leaves are only toxic in very, very large quantities.
But there may be other, weirder, reasons that humans feared the tomato.
There's a long-standing myth that when the tomato first arrived in Europe, aristocrats ate them by the bushel. But many got sick and even died. Everyone assumed the culprit was the unknown, foreign fruit. However, that wasn't correct. Pewter plates were very popular with upper class in 16th century Europe. But they contained lead, sometimes massive amounts. When acidic foods come in contact with lead, it leaches out and makes the food toxic. Tomatoes are acidic, so—as the legend goes—when the tomatoes were put on these pewter dishes, they leached out the lead. This, thought rich Europeans, led to a rash of lead poisonings among the wealthy. However, since the less-rich could not afford pewter, they often only had wood dishes and therefore were not exposed to high concentrations of the dangerous metal.
But Atlas Obscura punches a few holes in this story, concluding that "tomatoes aren't acid enough, pewter dishes were never common enough, and lead poisoning accumulates too slowly to be linked to a specific meal." In its place, the publication provides another theory, that the tomatoes' lack of popularity was due to their association with witchcraft and werewolves.
At about the same time that the tomato was making its way to Europe, a dark cloud of witchcraft was enveloping the region. Between the 14th and mid-17th century, hundreds of thousands of people were executed for purportedly being witches (85 percent of which were women). In the middle of this panic, tales flew around about witchy behavior, like the intake of "witches brew" and their "flying ointment." According to several 15th and 16th-century texts, this "ointment" was often made up from a combination of hemlock, nightshade and mandrake, two of which, as we know now, are closely associated with the tomato. As this NSFW Atlantic article explains, people believed witches would put this goo on a broomstick and find places to stick those broomsticks where it could be better absorbed.
As for werewolves, the full scientific name of a tomato is Solanum lycopersicum, which roughly translates from the Greek to "wolf peach." In the second century Roman botanist and physician Galen wrote several texts about what herbs, plants and fruits that one could use to summon mythical creatures (and what to get high with). Nightshade was prominently involved in summoning werewolves. When the tomato was named, these ancient texts may have been unfortunately taken literally.