Artwork By Rosudan Topuria
In the 1700s, children in Europe began experiencing hallucinations, slurred speech, blue gums, failing organs, convulsions, seizures, and tingling in fingers and toes. For many of them, by the time symptoms began to show, it was already too late. Death was already on the horizon. Parents, anxious to understand what was happening to their young ones, blamed everything they could think of: poor health, birth defects, and even witchcraft.
In a few decades, it would come to be discovered that a plant was to blame, but not one currently know for it’s poisonous nature for its poisonous nature. This plant was a newcomer to European cuisine, but would soon become a staple in many dishes. It was the humble tomato that was the source of fear for many. But what made it so poisonous?
In an 1867 almanac by John J Thomas, it was theorized that a poisonous worm was infiltrating tomatoes and imparting on them a lethal toxin. This theory was backed by many personal testimonies, but was laid to rest after etymologists displayed the non-poisonous, non-violent nature of the suspect. Tomatoes, which had been limited to ornaments in gardens after all the outlandish claims, were slowly being trusted more and more.
Joseph Campbell, of Campbell Soups, discovered that tomatoes’ high level of acidity made them a great candidate for canning. He went on to create a famous condensed tomato soup, which only grew in popularity from its creation in 1897. The soup became a sort of icon and fixture for American kitchens, going on to be painted by famous American pop culture artist, Andy Warhol. Even today, rarely is an American pantry without at least one can of tomato soup. This form of tomato was completely safe to eat… How is it that they were poisonous before?
Europeans of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were famous for poisonous luxury, from arsenic wallpaper to pewter plates. The latter, in this case, was the guilty party when it came to the cases of lethal poisoning in relation to tomatoes. Pewter plates were a popular staple for upper-class homes in the 16th and 17th centuries as a sign of wealth and sophistication. Little did aristocrats know, however, that these beautiful plates were high in lead content. This was not normally an issue, unless the food on the plate was high in acidity. Now, remember that Mr. Campbell realized that the tomato was a prime option for canning due to its high acidity levels. The combination of an acidic ingredient and a lead plate was dangerous at best, and lethal at worst.
The tomato, when it came in contact with these pewter plates, absorbed the lead and became incredibly toxic. Thus followed the high increase of lead poisoning among the wealthy. It only took some field research for scientists to realize that natives of the Americas and poor Europeans were eating tomatoes without any signs of poisoning. They were, after all, eating off of inexpensive wood dishes, which lacked the poisonous quality of the lead in pewter plates. In this very rare case, it paid to be poor.
However, the tale unfortunately doesn’t end there.
In recent years, this theory has been discounted as just that: a theory. In less generous circles, it’s even been called a myth. Scientists and sociologists claim that the lead content was not high enough to be lethal, especially in conjunction with the rather relatively low acidity of tomatoes (they were not acid enough to cause this reaction), and that pewter plates weren’t widespread enough to cause such aversion and widespread rumors.
In an article in Atlas Obscura, writer Romie Stott blames the witch-hunts between 1300 and 1650 for the fear of tomatoes. By the time tomatoes arrived on European shores from the Americas in the mid-16th century, witch and werewolf hunters (yes, that was an actual occupation) claimed that witches used a sort of lacquer on their brooms with key ingredients like poisonous nightshade and mandrake. Deadly Nightshade (also known as Belladonna) and mandrake bore a suspicious resemblance to tomatoes, and many were unable to tell the difference between the poisonous and the edible of the three.
Despite the fact Central and South Americans (like the Aztecs and the Incas) ate tomatoes for centuries without convulsing or dropping dead, Europeans swore off tomatoes due to their inability to determine mandrake from tomato. Why eat a tomato if it could turn you into a werewolf, cause your possession by the Devil, or lead to you being accused of witchcraft? With crusades and inquisitions running rampant, this wasn’t a risk many were willing to take for a simple bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich.
It is difficult to determine which — if any — of these theories is right, but perhaps that’s not the purpose of this tale. We may want to determine just how outlandish the tomato terror became to be, whether it was plates or witchcraft that caused the boycott of this humble fruit or vegetable (we won’t open that can of potentially poisonous worms). But, maybe the fear of tomatoes serves as a cautionary tale as to how gullible we, as humans, really are. We can be quite motivated by fear, at times: witchcraft, werewolves, tomatoes. But, by overcoming these fears through the pursuit of knowledge, we are able to enjoy the fruits — or vegetables — of our labor. Tomatoes have become a beloved ingredient in cultures around the world, and perhaps can be a testament to all other supposedly poisonous plants, that they, too, may one day be enjoyed by all.
(Please note: The Avant-Guard is not condoning the consumption of poisonous fruits, vegetables, or other foods. We are not liable for injury due to the consumption of such foods.)
Blitz, M. (2017, July 31). How witches and expensive dishes stopped people from eating tomatoes. In Food and Wine. Retrieved from https://www.foodandwine.com/lifestyle/how-witches-and-expensive-dishes-stopped-people-eating-tomatoes
Filippone, P. T. (2019, January 16). The history of tomatoes as food. In The Spruce Eats. Retrieved from https://www.thespruceeats.com/history-of-tomatoes-as-food-1807678
Smith, K. A. (2013, June 18). Why the tomato was feared in Europe for more than 200 years. In Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-the-tomato-was-feared-in-europe-for-more-than-200-years-863735/
Stott, R. (2016, October 24). When tomatoes were blamed for witchcraft and werewolves. In Atlas Obscura. Retrieved from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/when-tomatoes-were-blamed-for-witchcraft-and-werewolves
Thomas, J. J. (1867). The illustrated annual register for rural affairs and cultivator almanac for the year […]: volumes 13-15. N.p.: L. Tucker.
Warhol, A. (Artist). (1962). Campbell’s soup cans. [Image of painting]. New York City, New York; The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Retrieved from https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/andy-warhol-campbells-soup-cans-1962/