“A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins.”
— Laurie Colwin
David Gentilcore is a history professor at Leicester University, specializing in Italian social history and culture. His work focused on Italian medical practices until, inevitably, he landed on cultural history via the tomato.
Given the stereotypes of Italian Mammas and their endlessly bubbling pots of tomato sauce, of every Mafia movie scene depicting at least one family meal, the assembled group squabbling whilst shoveling forkfuls of tomato-splashed pasta into their mouths, it’s hard not to associate this most adored fruit (botanically speaking) with the Italians. However, like so many stereotypes, it is incorrect. Gentilcore, in his fact-stocked book, takes the reader from 1548 through the present day, to tell the real story of the lovely tomato.
In 1548, Cosimo de’ Medici received a basket of tomatoes from a grand duke’s Florentine estate. It appears the Medicis did not eat the tomatoes, but instead merely gazed upon them. Though early botanists suggested the tomato was edible, this New World import, native to Mexico and possibly the South American coastal highlands, was met with horror and disgust. At a time when primitive medicine utilized “bodily humors” as a method of treatment, the tomato was deemed cold, moist, “harmful to the head, generating melacholic humors…” It was an inauspicious beginning for a fruit that, treated as a vegetable, has become one of the most fetishized foodstuffs in America.
By about 1600, a few daring souls, most doctors, amateur botanists, or both, had discovered this “strange and horrible” fruit actually tasted pretty good when you add a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. It was oft associated with eggplant, another exotic newcomer. Interestingly, though tomatillos were also cultivated by Mexicans (think salsa verde) and share some of the tomato’s characteristics, they never caught on in Italy.
Over time, the tomato shifted from suspicion to ubiquity. Gentilcore describes early tomato preservation methods, including sun drying and the preparation of conserva nera, an early precursor to tomato paste. Recipes are included from for the making of Italian tomato paste, circa 1777, and Pomidori alla Napolitana: halved, cored tomatoes containing the tomato’s fruit, anchovies, parsley, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper. The mixture is blended, stuffed back into the tomato, covered in bread crumbs and baked. The recipe will be familiar to any Alice Waters devotee.
By the 1830s, tomatoes were commonplace enough to be projectiles, tossed at offensive performers. More importantly, they became a staple food of the Italian peasantry, which often sustained themselves largely on tomatoes, legumes, bread, and vegetables.
In 1849, Innkeeper Luigi Biccierai, wrote about creating a “tricolor sauce” intended to honor the Italian flag. There was the classic salsa verde (again, see any Alice Waters cookbook for a recipe), a salsa bianco (flour-based white sauce), and…drumroll…..the salsa rossa. Gentilcore reprints Biccieriai’s recipe for this most famed sauce, edited here:
seven or eight large tomatoes
a quarter onion
two basil leaves
a stick of finely chopped celery
a little parsley
Cook, strain through a sieve, and “the lovely red sauce is ready.”
When the chocolate actually met the peanut butter is harder to discern. Gentilcore writes that the first mention of tomatoes with pasta occurs not in Italy, but in France, where one Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimaud de la Reynière, writing in 1807, suggested adding tomatoes to vermicelli as a fall recipe.
Tomatoes, meanwhile, had become a mainstay. Across Italy tomatoes were canned at home or preserved by drying. Throughout the 1800s, as industrialization permitted safer methods of commercial canning, the tomato went from being a domestically produced item to a commercial one. In the US, tomato catsup become popular, reaching even more eaters after the H.J. Heinz company opened in 1899.
As waves of Italian immigrants flooded America, they brought with them hungry patrons of imported Italian goods. An infrastructure of Italian markets, stocking pasta, tomato sauce, tomato paste, cured meats, cheeses, and vegetables sprung up (with some distribution assistance from the Mafia). Immigrants were shocked by the amounts of inexpensive meat available, and many, too poor to eat meat back home, commented on “eating meat everyday.” Making conserva or canning tomatoes became much like today’s do-it-yourself foodie movement—an unnecessary but longed-for gesture toward another time.
Gentilcore discusses farm subsidies, tariffs, the working condition of Italian fieldworkers (much like today’s Mexican counterparts), the way food was used as a propaganda during Mussolini’s era, even an enterprising immigrant chef named Ettore Bioardi, who launched a canned food empire. To better reach his English speaking audience, he altered the spelling of his name to Chef Boyardee.
Toward the end of the book, we are brought to the present day, where Gentilcore describes the sorry state of the Italian tomato. Sadly, tomatoes in Italy are treated largely as they are in the United States and Great Britain: bred for hardiness, sent long distances (China is one of Italy’s main tomato suppliers), their individuality and flavor bred out of them in favor of keeping qualities. As in the United States, there are individuals protesting this state of affairs, notably Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement. Farmers are beginning to grow heirloom varieties once more, though to read Gentilcore is to suspect that, come August and September, the United States produces quality tomatoes.
Gentilcore is an academic writing for fellow historians, and while his prose isn’t riveting, nor is it the theory-ridden, densely unreadable stuff favored by many in modern academia. Those with an interest in tomatoes, Italian life, or just cultural history in general may find this both enlightening and entertaining.