History of Tomatoes in the United States Part 1

About the history of tomatoes in the United States, how Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson, Puritan beliefs of the dangers of tomatoes.


Before Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson dared eat a tomato--or rather a whole basket of tomatoes--in public on September 26, 1830, the delicious "love apple" was regarded as a deadly aphrodisiac by most Americans. Thomas Jefferson and others were exceptions, but the tomato was too scarlet and shapely to please most Puritan palates and no doubt some people had been poisoned by the plant's foliage, which belongs to the deadly nightshade family and does contain dangerous alkaloids.

If any one man liberated Lycopersicon esculentum, and enabled us to enjoy it in the savory sauces and salads Europeans had been enjoying since they brought it back from the New World, it was the eccentric colonel from Salem, N.J. In 1808, after a trip abroad, Johnson introduced the tomato to the farmers of Salem, and each year thereafter offered a prize for the largest locally grown fruit. But the colonel was a forceful individual and wanted the tomato to be regarded as more than a mere ornamental bush. On September 26, 1830 (the exact date varies in different accounts), he announced that he would appear on the Salem courthouse steps and eat not one but an entire basket of "wolf peaches."

Public reaction in Salem was immediate. Declared Johnson's physician, Dr. James van Meeter: "The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid! One dose and you're dead. . . . If the Wolf Peach is too ripe and warmed by the sun, he'll be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he survive, by some unlikely chance, I must remind that the skin of the Solanum Lypcopersicum [sic] will stick to the lining of his stomach and cause cancer. . . ." Van Meeter was there, black bag in hand, along with 2,000 other curious people from miles around, to watch Colonel Johnson commit certain suicide.

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