Tomatoes are everywhere in present-day American diets. In fact, Americans eat 36 pounds of tomatoes each year, and many of our favorite foods (pizza, spaghetti, ketchup, etc.) rely heavily on the sweet flavor of the tomato. For home gardeners, tomatoes are the most popular crop.
Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) were not always among the most popular fruits in the American diet; however, historians’ assumptions about the presumed toxicity of the plant may be overblown. Tomatoes, native to South America and domesticated in Central America, were part of the Columbia Exchange, the trade of plants, animals, and pathogens between the New and Old Worlds during the Age of Discovery. Spanish and Italian foodways quickly adopted the tomato after the plant’s introduction to Europe. English cooks were more hesitant. The tomato is a member of the plant family Solanaceae along with the potato, eggplant or aubergine, chili and bell peppers, and the highly poisonous belladonna or deadly nightshade. This last member of the family is the likely source of reservations around the use of tomatoes. Concerns about the toxicity of tomatoes, perhaps spread by the smell emitted by the plant’s leaves and stalks, lead many in England to avoid the fruit using them only medicinally. Research by food scholar Andrew Smith suggests English cooks’ reticence to use tomatoes was relatively short-lived. By the 1750s, English cooks were using tomatoes as evidenced by a recipe for “piccalilli” in a supplement to the 1758 edition of Hannah Glasse’s classic The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.
Randolph’s simple recipe for tomatoes baked with butter and breadcrumbs is a possible example of the types of tomato preparations enjoyed in early America. The recipe To Stew Tomatos explores the fruit’s introduction to the United States.
To Scollop Tomatos
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 101.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 1 slice of bread grated fine on a box grater or in a food processor
- 2 medium tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon butter, divided evenly between layers
- salt & pepper
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Peel and slice your tomatoes. An easy method for peeling tomatoes is to cut an “X” on the bottom of each tomato and place them in a large bowl. Pour boiling water over the tomatoes and let them sit for one minute. Remove the tomatoes from the water and the skins should peel off easily.
3. Layer the tomatoes in a greased baking dish with the other ingredients thusly: layer of tomatoes, layer of breadcrumbs, sprinkle of salt and pepper, and bits of butter. Continue until all ingredients are used.
4. Bake 40 minutes until bubbly and the top is browned.
Yield: Two tomatoes yielded one generous main dish serving. If serving as a side dish, plan one tomato per person.
Note: Another recipe that is easily scaled up or down.
Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 800-801.
John F. Mariani, The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 506.
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 61-62.
Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 590-1.
Andrew F. Smith, The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1994).