By Michael Nolan
While thumbing through an old Italian cookbook that belonged to some long gone member of my family, I learned a great deal about the history of the tomato in the country that now considers the fruit a staple of daily life.
The most surprising thing I learned was that it wasn’t always that way.
The first time tomatoes were mentioned in Italy came from a 1557 translation of a text by the Greek physician Dioscoride. The description mentioned tomatoes turning from green to red and being eaten fried (like mushrooms) or juiced (for sauces).
In a letter to a pen pal dated March 10, 1572, Costanzo Felici wrote of the “Pomo d’oro or pomo del Peru…either intense yellow or vigorously red, either round or ridged in slices like a melon.”
He would go on to say that he was none too impressed by them, saying that this “new thing was easily more attractive than tasty.”
Could it be that the Italians were not so quick to jump aboard the tomato bandwagon?
Antonio Latini, who was rewarded for his culinary expertise by being honored with the title of cavalier, is also credited with the first mention of tomatoes in a cookbook. He wrote in his 1692 work The Modern Steward of recipes that included tomatoes being sauced, stewed and mixed with eggplant and herbs for a Spanish-style soup.
By the late 1700s, Italians — at least the ones from the area in and around Naples — had become tomato worshippers, and in 1781, Vincenzo Corrado was professing the virtues of the tomato as both flavorful and good for digestion.
It is important to note that during this period it was still believe that the seeds from tomatoes had to be removed prior to eating them, a myth that many people all over the world still believe today.