Very Odd Apples

My title actually refers to tomatoes rather than apples, a great example of a New World crop that was introduced into Europe though the “Columbian Exchange” and then brought back to America in the eighteenth century. Like another consequential import from the western hemisphere,  the potato, the tomato was slow to find acceptance among Europeans, primarily due to its first introduction in print by the Italian physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli (Matthiolus) in his 1544 Commentaries (the tomato page from a 1590 edition is below).  Matthiolus refers to the tomato as a “poma aurea” or golden apple, which is generally taken as evidence that yellow tomatoes preceded their red counterparts across the Atlantic.


Matthiolus tells his readers how to eat the tomato (fried in oil with salt and pepper) but he also classifies and compares the new vegetable (fruit?  He is confused as well) to the mysterious magical mandrake, which gives it a rather malevolent reputation in the early modern era.  Northern naturalists included the tomato in their “new” herbals in the sixteenth century, with name variations but the same magical associations. Conrad Gesner stressed the aphrodisiac qualities of mandrake but maintained its connection to the new plant in his Historia Plantarum (1553),  and thus “golden apples” became “love apples” (and sometimes “wolf’s peaches”) in northern Europe while in Spain the term “Moor’s apples” prevailed.  The most beautiful herbal of the sixteenth century, Leonart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium, included an illustration of the tomato in its later editions, as did Rembert Dodoens’ Cruydeboeck:

The most comprehensive herbal issued in sixteenth-century England, John Gerard’s Herball, was primarily plagiarized from Dodoens’ earlier work (there was a lot of “sharing” in the early modern publishing industry), but Gerard was a gardener who experimented with tomato cultivation (and consumption) himself.  He found the plant to be “of rank and stinking savour” and added this commentary:  In Spain and those hot regions they use to eat the Apples [of love]  prepared and boiled with pepper, salt, and oil:  but they yield very little nourishment to the body, and the same naught and corrupt.  Likewise they do eat the Apples with oil, vinegar, and pepper mixed together for sauce to their meat, even as we in these cold countries do mustard.”  An early reference to tomato sauce, this observation also tells us a lot about the difference between Mediterranean and northern European cuisines, then and now!

Taking their cue from Gerard, the tomato was scorned in Anglo-American cuisines until the modern era, despite efforts by such varied advocates as Thomas Jefferson, who cultivated tomatoes at Monticello, and the Neapolitan artist Michel Felice Corne, who escaped the Napoleonic Wars by departing Naples in 1800 on one of Elias Hasket Derby’s Salem-bound ships, the Mount Vernon.  Corne lived and worked in Salem for the next six years, ostensibly introducing both Italian painting techniques and Italian tomato sauce to the town, but Salemites would have none of the latter.  It would take another half-century or so, and a huge wave of Italian immigration, for “love apples” to become American (again).

Michel Felice Corne, The Ship Mount Vernon of Salem Outrunning a French Fleet

An 1869 Advertisement, Library of Congress


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