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Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy

It took Italians an age to embrace the tomato, but the rest is juicy history, says Robert Appelbaum

It has always bothered me that Italians call the tomato a "pomodoro", a golden apple, and have done so since the early 16th century. Don't they know that most tomatoes are red, not yellow, and that they aren't exactly "apples" either?

David Gentilcore, professor of early modern history at the University of Leicester, has two different answers. The first is that when explorers first brought tomatoes to Europe from the New World, they also brought over tomatillos. Tomatoes and tomatillos were considered interchangeable (they are botanical and culinary cousins), and many tomatillos are yellow. Italy and most of the rest of Europe soon took a pass on the tomatillo, but the name stuck. "Pomodoro" it was.

Gentilcore's second explanation is more interesting. To understand why a fruit (or vegetable-like fruit) is called "gold" or an "apple", one has to know what it means to call an object of any kind "gold", or any botanical item an "apple". It made sense to call a tomato a golden apple in the 16th century, even if it doesn't make much sense today, because of linguistic, scientific and mythological associations that no longer hold.

It is well known that it took a long while for Italy to adopt the tomato as its national vegetable-like fruit. The tomato belongs to the nightshade family, along with a number of poisonous plants, not to mention tobacco, and its smell on the vine is not always reassuring.

Along with other edible members of the nightshade family introduced to Europe at the same time - potatoes, capsicums, aubergines - tomatoes were at first hard to figure out, hard to do something with. What was at stake were obstacles of categorisation, imagination and practice. Where were these new items to be placed in the episteme of the West, and how, if at all, were they to be accommodated to the practices of everyday life and the economic organisation of estates, regions and nations?

One can imagine a Woody Allen story: a 16th-century botanist in Tuscany is puzzling over this new object, the pomodoro, brought to him by a sailor. What should he do with it? Try it out on the tennis court? Use it to cushion the insoles of wood-bottomed shoes? He tries to stick it in his ear. Nothing. At last, he tries something bold. He takes a bite of it. Eureka! And then he thinks, this would be good with a little garlic and oil, a sprig of basil, a slice of mozzarella.

Gentilcore never imagines that such a moment occurred, but apart from noting that early varieties of the tomato were more acidic than those of today, he never gives evidence that it didn't occur either. What he does do, with clarity and scholarly precision, but also with energy and wit, is document how this "apple" entered into the thinking and doing of Italy.

Spaniards actually led the way, teaching Italians to fry tomatoes up with aubergines, squash and onions, and use the dish (now famous as ratatouille) for a condiment. Italian peasants, especially those in the south and on Spanish-influenced islands, who often lacked other resources, came more and more to rely on a largely vegetarian regime (now famous as the Mediterranean diet) in which tomatoes, raw or cooked, were teamed with oil, seasonings and other vegetables, and eaten as a main dish in a meal along with bread or some other cereal product.

The late 18th century gives the first recorded evidence of tomato sauces and preserved pastes, along with varieties equal to the task. In the 19th century, with the south and especially Naples again leading the way, comes pasta al pomodoro, along with the pizza Margherita.

The rest is history. Industrialisation. The Italian diaspora. Worldwide trade. Cycles of prosperity and austerity. Fascism. The economic miracle of the postwar years. Contemporary abundance, and the displacements, ironies and anxieties of hyper-modernism. The story is familiar, but this time the hero is the pomodoro.

Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy

By David Gentilcore

Columbia University Press

272pp, £18.95

ISBN 9780231152068

Published 6 July 2010

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