Etymology Corner- Tomato

You say etymology cornér, I say etymology corner! I wanna talk about tomatoes! And just to warn y’all I’m gonna get a little ranty and stray away from etymology because the Colombian exchange is FASCINATING.

So pre-Colombian Mexicans named this fruit they cultivated tomatl because the Nahuatl language is very fond of putting L’s after T’s. Tomatl comes from tomana meaning “to swell” and translates to something like fat water thing. Later Azteca named them xitomatl after breeding them to be even bigger and that just means “fat water thing with navel”. Tomatoes have belly buttons, y’all!

So the Spaniards brought tomatoes to Europe and people were not having it. Someday I’ll have to do a write-up on the similarly-named potato because I honestly think they are the most fascinating plant ever but to put it simply, Europeans didn’t like these non-Christian, exotic foodstuffs at first. And I do mean non-Christan, because for a while the belief was any vegetable not mentioned in the Bible was some kind of devil veggie. It doesn’t hurt that tomatoes are nightshades and most nightshades are very poisonous. The idea that witches used nightshades to turn themselves into werewolves is where we get the scientific species name of lycopersicum and why another old name for the tomato is the “wolf peach”, which is coincidentally my favorite theoretical Super Mario Brothers character.

Of course, tomatoes eventually revolutionized cuisine. The reason the Spanish used it so much is obvious as they first brought it back, but the Italian legacy is even more fascinating to me. The pomodoro or “gold apple” was at first admired mostly as a curiosity. Most Italians only saw tomatoes as an ornament or conversation piece if they were rich and a food that wasn’t calorie-rich enough to invest in planting if they were poor. This went on for over a decade; the first mention of tomatoes in Italian stuff is in 1548 and they aren’t mentioned in cookbooks until 1692, and even then, those are imported Spanish recipes! Think about how integral tomatoes are in Italian food and then reflect on the fact that they didn’t think to actually cook with them for 150 years.

This is better than they did in Britain, though. Even though they were being eaten in Spain and Italy, most British still believed tomatoes were poisonous. Up until about the mid-1800s tomatoes were associated with Jewish and Italian populations, which made them a low and underappreciated food. After all, the (mostly expatriated from Spain) Jews were not exactly everyone’s favorite people and Italians were considered exotic and swarthy. Racism: ruining dinner since forever.

In America, tomatoes caught on much quicker, probably since they were already a thing here. Tomatoes are the official fruit of Ohio, since botanically they are indeed a large berry. They’re the state vegetable of New Jersey, because of course they are a culinary veggie and anyone who says different is trying to trick you. Of course, Arkansas went along with the joke so that tomatoes are both the state fruit and the state vegetable.

There’s your etymological, olericultural (the study of vegetables) corner today! I’m gonna go eat something with tomatoes in it.


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