Tag Archives: tomatoes

There and Back Again: The Trans-Atlantic Tomato

Kelly Sharp

Conrad Gesner, Historia plantarum (1561). Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.
Conrad Gesner, Historia plantarum (1561). Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.

Cold winter nights have me craving warm and filling meals and nothing pairs with a slice of my husband’s homemade bread like a bowl (or two!) of tomato soup. Used in dishes, sauces, salads, drinks, and eaten raw, thousands of cultivars of the tomato are grown worldwide to meet modern consumption demands. However, this culinary vegetable was not originally warmly received by Anglo-Americans, who didn’t think it was easily adapted to their palates.[i]

Though a “New World” cultivar, the tomato had quite a journey over time and space before becoming a consistent cultivar of antebellum American Southern cuisine. The cultivated tomato originated in Central America and was a late addition to the food supply of Mesoamericans, for no pre-Columbian archeological evidence of its cultivation has been uncovered. It first appears in written record in 1519, mentioned in Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés’s diary of his infamous conquest of Mexico. Although cultivated in Continental Europe since the 1540s, fundamentally altering foodways of the Spanish and Italians, Englishmen remained wary of the tomato for over two hundred years, growing them only for curiosity and for the beauty of the fruit. The Central American fruit’s first appearance in a published English recipe was under the name love apple and used to dress haddock “after the Spanish Way” by Hannah Glasse in the 1758 supplement to The Art of Cookery.[ii] By the 1780s, other tomato recipes appeared in British cookery manuscripts and the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica announced the tomato was “in daily use; being either boiled in soups or broths, or served up boiled as garnishes to flesh-meats.”[iii]

James Peale. Still Life: Balsam Apples and Vegetables, 1820s. Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 67.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
James Peale. Still Life: Balsam Apples and Vegetables, 1820s. Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 67.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Despite their late bloom in English cuisine, white colonists rather commonly ate tomatoes in Jamaica and probably throughout the Caribbean. In the early eighteenth century, English naturalist Henry Barham confessed that he had eaten five or six raw tomatoes at a time in Jamaica, “full of pulpy juice, and of small seeds, which you swallow with the pulp, and have something of a gravy taste.”[iv] The first known reference of the tomato in the mainland British North American colonies was by English herbalist William Salmon on his 1710 expedition of Carolina.[v] Linguistic evidence suggests the tomato was likely introduced to the American South from the Caribbean. Late seventeenth-century English, French, and German manuscripts all refer to the fruit as the love apple. and in fact the word tomato did not receive linguistic prominence in England until the mid-nineteenth century. In contrast, almost all eighteenth-century Southern references used some variation of the Spanish- and Portuguese-origin-word for tomato.[vi] Part of indigenous gardens throughout the Caribbean, tomatoes were slowly adopted into the mélange of colonial cooking.

Instructions for “Stewed Tomatoes,” “Tomato Omelet,” and “To Pickle Tomatoes” from the recipe book of Maria Poyas Gibbs. Source: Recipe book, ca. 1840. (34/702) South Carolina Historical Society
Instructions for “Stewed Tomatoes,” “Tomato Omelet,” and “To Pickle Tomatoes” from the recipe book of Maria Poyas Gibbs. Source: Recipe book, ca. 1840. (34/702) South Carolina Historical Society

Contrary to prominent Southern food historian Sam Hillard’s claims in his Hog Meat and Hoe Cake that the “tomato was little used as a vegetable in antebellum times,” tomato usage is well-documented in the early nineteenth-century American South.[vii] Among recipe manuscripts of antebellum Charlestonians, tomato cookery paralleled that of English cookery–tomatoes were stewed with other ingredients such as fish, shrimp, beef, or egg dishes. Tomatoes also stood alone–served fried, stewed, baked, or chopped. The most frequently reoccurring recipes for tomatoes, however, called for them to be preserved. For example, the receipt book of Mary Motte Alston Pringle includes three recipes for preserving tomatoes–two for pickling and one for canning–as well as a recipe for tomato catsup. In her recipe “to Preserve Tomatoes,” Pringle advocates scalding ripe tomatoes in hot water to easily remove the skins, boiling them in sugar or salt, then drying inch-thick cakes in the sun before packing the slices away in bags to hang in a dry place. This preparation suggests a later use for application in a dish calling for stewed tomatoes such as “Knuckled Veal” or “Baked Shrimp and Tomatoes.”[viii] Such recipes suggest the considerable effort required to transcend seasonality because of the centrality of tomatoes to dishes consumed in the antebellum South; women like Mary Motte Alston Pringle found the tomato a valuable component to their cuisine patterns and therefore practiced several methods to ensure its availability out of season.

If this article has got you hankering for tomatoes in your next meal, an antebellum Southerner would advise you get a move on! In her recipe book, The Carolina Housewife 1847), Sarah Rutledge notes “the art of cooking tomatoes lies mostly in cooking them enough. In whatever way prepared, they should be put on some hours before dinner.”[ix] To this twenty-first century academic, that means simmering on low in the crockpot! For my favorite out-of-season tomato soup recipe, check out this slow cooker tomato basil soup.

*****

[i] Though botanically a fruit, the tomato is legally classified, for tax purposes, as a vegetable. See the court decision of Nix V. Hedden (Supreme Court, 1893).

[ii] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London, UK: Printed for the Author, 1758), 312.

[iii] Encylopedia Britannica (Edinburgh: A. Bell & C. Macfarquhar, 1797), vol. 17, 597-598.

[iv] Henry Barham, Hortus Americanus: containing an account of the trees, shrubs, and other vegetable productions of South-America and the West India Islands, and particularly of the island of Jamaica (written 1711) (Kingston, Jamaica: Alexander Aikman, 1794), 20.

[v] William Salmon, Botanologia, the English herbal, or, History of plants (London, UK: I. Dawkes, 1710), 1356.

[vi] Andrew Smith, The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1994), 200.

[vii] Sam Hilliard, Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 1972), 173.

[viii] Alston-Pringle-Frost papers, 1693-1990 (bulk 1780-1958). (1285.00) South Carolina Historical Society.

[ix] Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife or, House and Home: By a Lady of Charleston (Charleston, SC: W.R. Babcock & Co., 1847), 102.

Kelly K. Sharp is a PhD candidate and instructor at the University of California, Davis. A native of Encinitas, California, Kelly earned her BA in History at Willamette University and volunteered as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker with Community Housing Works in 2012-2013. Her dissertation, entitled “Farmers’ Plots to Backlot Stewpots: The Culinary Creolism of Urban Antebellum Charleston,” is a culinary history of race-making in the urban center of the South.

Kelly has experience teaching survey courses in United States history, women and gender history, and material studies at University of California, Davis. She has been active in public history, including editorial and curatorial work for the Blackville Historical Center and at the University of California, Davis, and mentorship initiatives within the Coordinating Council of Women Historians.

Outside of her academic work, she enjoys hiking, traveling, reading, and eating.

A Recipe for Learning Atlantic World History: Student Contributions

By Zara Anishanslin

Student Jose Hernandez summed up initial reaction to finding a “recipe assignment” on an Atlantic World History course syllabus: “when you first assigned the Columbian Exchange assignment, I honestly assumed that you were giving us busy work.” Once students dove into the assignment, reactions changed. As Hernandez went on to say, “once I started researching, I realized that this was a legit assignment.”

Legit indeed. The project enhanced student understanding of the Columbian Exchange as a truly transformative global phenomenon. It also provided them with new—and at times surprising— knowledge about their favorite foods.

Cow
Stefano della Bella, Cow, Diversi animali, plate 7 (Published by Pierre Mariette, ca. 1641), Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1917 (17.50.17-256), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After Europeans introduced them to the Americas, the meat of pigs and cows became staple features of creolized cuisine. Students worked on a number of such recipes. Bryan Howell researched the empanadilla, or little empanada, a pork-based dish created by culinary exchanges among Portuguese, Spanish, Native American, and Caribbean creoles. As he put it, the empanadilla “had to make a lot of trips back and forth across the Atlantic to be what it is. And what it is is freaking delicious.”

Student Cynthia Vera researched another meat-based recipe, one that she termed “a Latin spin on a European croquette.”

Recipe for Rellenos de Papa

2 pounds russet potatoes (Vera prefers the more traditionally used white potato to the sweet potatoes in the linked recipe)

½ cup cooked corn meal, with extra for dusting

1 pound of lean ground beef

¼ cup of sofrito (sauce base)

1 packet of sazon con achote

Canola oil for frying

½ teaspoon of sale

Directions:

Cook ground meat and drain. Add sofrito mixture and packet of sazon con achote. Stir well over low heat to blend flavors and set aside.

Peel and boil potatoes until tender. Mash potatoes with salt and cornmeal, mix well. Place potato mixture in refrigerator to cool.

Once cool, scoop into balls, make pocket in middle of ball with your finger to place meat. Carefully press mixture back into a ball, thoroughly covering meat mixture. Dust in cornmeal, fry.

While the beef was the result of European colonization, corn and potatoes both were essential to American indigenous peoples’ diets. As Vera aptly put it, both were “ingredients of abundance” for Native Americans. And yet, Vera had never thought of the indigenous roots of what was to her a very familiar dish. As she reflected, “Growing up Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian I did not get the sense that my culture was heavily influenced by anything but other Hispanic cultures.” Researching her chosen dish, she found otherwise, and that recipes like rellenos de papa “speak volumes to the original cultures that did not allow themselves to be swallowed up, but instead were reborn into something else that has become a signature for today’s people.”

Students Jose Hernandez and Madeline Mercado also described their recipes—different variations of rice and beans —as edible reminders of how people retained culinary practices in the face of change. West Africans ate rice and beans, enslaved people of African descent were the laborers who tended rice in places like South Carolina, and West African cultivation practices and knowledge were likely integral to the crop’s success in the Americas.

PanDulce
Pan dulce, on display at a Staten Island bakery, Pan con Cafe. Pictured is a type of pan dulce called la concha: “El Borracho,” on the top left and “El Gusano,” top right. Photo by Sonia Martinez, 2015.

Other students found that European traditions were behind what they thought were indigenous recipes. Sonia Martinez researched pan dulce or “Mexican sweet bread,” a treat “sold everywhere, from street food stands to elaborate bakeries in the capital.” Pan dulce is an important part of Mexican holidays like the Day of the Dead, when it is eaten in the form of pan de muerto (pan dulce in the shape of crosses, skulls, angels, or tomb effigies).

Martinez was surprised to find that pan dulce “wasn’t made from native ingredients passed down from generation to generation.” Instead, it relies on wheat, a plant Spanish missionaries insisted on importing to make communion wafers.

Nicolás Enríquez (Mexican, 1704–1790) The Virgin of Guadalupe with the Four Apparitions, 1773 Mexican,  Oil on copper; 22 1/4 × 16 1/2 in. (56.5 × 41.9 cm) Framed: 25 1/4 × 19 7/8 × 1 3/8 in. (64.1 × 50.5 × 3.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest and several members of The Chairman's Council Gifts, 2014 (2014.173) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/635401
Nicolás Enríquez (Mexican, 1704–1790)
The Virgin of Guadalupe with the Four Apparitions (1773), Purchase, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest and several members of The Chairman’s Council Gifts, 2014 (2014.173), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg),The Witch, ca. 1500, Engraving, Fletcher Fund, 1919, 19.73.75, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg),The Witch, ca. 1500, Engraving, Fletcher Fund (1919, 19.73.75), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Another group of students focused on recipes that used ingredients that traveled east, from the Americas to Europe and, eventually, India and Asia. Some had legends attached to them. Student Ashley Olivetti delved into her grandmother’s Italian tomato sauce recipe. She found that Europeans at first feared tomatoes in part because they are part of the family Solanaceae, which includes “deadly nightshades” like belladonna, a poisonous plant that, according to Germanic folklore, witches used to summon werewolves.

Student Thomas Finn looked at vichyssoise, or French potato and leek soup, and was surprised to find that the ordinary potato has legends attached to it. When Incas from Cuzco fled before Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1476-1541), they lightened their load to travel faster under threat of puma attacks, throwing supplies into Lake Pumacocha to prevent the Spanish from using them. Among these supplies was the Incan staple ch’unu, a freeze-dried, dehydrated potato easy to carry over the long distances of the far-flung Incan empire. The Inca were allegedly on their way to the legendary city of Paititi, a never found place rumored to contain hordes of gold and silver.

Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide, Foreigners in the Drawing Room of Foreign Merchant's House in Yokohama (9th month, 1861),  Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005 (2007.49.131a–c), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide, Foreigners in the Drawing Room of Foreign Merchant’s House in Yokohama (9th month, 1861), Triptych of polychrome woodblock prints Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005 (2007.49.131a–c), Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Other students looked at recipes that arose due to another farflung empire: that of the British. Student Remy Rodney researched his grandmother’s “Jamaican soup,” a dish that reflects the global reach of the British in its chicken, pumpkins, yams, and Korean dumplings. Student Harmon Chan looked at Japanese rice and potato curry. First found in Japanese cookbooks in 1872, this now popular standby in Japan had its beginnings not long before, after American Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 visit began a new era of Japanese trade with western nations including Britain.  Among the things the British introduced to Japan were curry from India and potatoes from America.

As one student put it, “food is one way people define their culture.” As students learned by researching recipes of the Columbian Exchange, food is one way people maintain old cultures and create new ones, too.

Contributors’ Bios

Harmon Chan is a History major interested in exploring the history of the United States.

Thomas Finn is a senior History major who is interested in colonial American history. His family has lived in America a long time, and in the same house on Staten Island since 1820.

Jose Hernandez is a senior History major, who is minoring in African American Studies. His interests include the Atlantic World and its importance in world history.

Sonia Martinez, born to immigrant parents, is a first generation Mexican American student. She is a senior majoring in English writing and linguistics, and minors in Spanish.

Madeline Mercado majors in Social Work and minors in Spanish. Her family background is Puerto Rican, and she is interested in the history of rice in the Atlantic World.

Ashley Olivetti is a senior American Studies major. Her family is originally from Italy and now resides in Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York. Her interests include researching and writing about history.

Remiah Rodney is a sophomore of Jamaican heritage. Born in London, England, he plays soccer for the College of Staten Island.

Cynthia Vera is a Latin American senior, majoring in Latin American Studies and Psychology.