The Deadly Tomato
April 18, 2017 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Tomatoes were nicknamed "the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit. " [I]t was an astonishing event when, in 1806, Jefferson served them to guests at the President’s House.
posted by caddis (40 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
What'd I miss?
posted by The Bellman at 9:13 AM on April 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

Tomatoes, tomatoes, the deadly fruit
The more you eat, the more you DIE
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:23 AM on April 18, 2017 [32 favorites]

I had always thought it was the similarity to potato fruit which are poisonous.
posted by GuyZero at 9:24 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Related: Thomas Jefferson's Favorite Vegetables, from Monticello, a website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation; and How The Tomato Transformed The European Diet, an article on Epicure & Culture.

See also: When Tomatoes Were Blamed For Witchcraft and Werewolves, where Atlas Obscura expands the tomatoes (misunderstood) reign of terror to 600 years, a significant increase from the 200 years listed most other places. From this article, you can also add another nickname to the tomato: wolf peach.

Another tangent: Revisited Myth #38: Colonial Americans suffered from widespread lead poisoning due to the lead in their pewter (History Myths blog, no citations noted). Pewter and lead-glazed earthen ware (coarseware, slipware, and tin-glazed earthenware), once common, fell out of style. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, they were replaced by ceramic plates and glass drinking vessels made widely available through the efficiencies of mass production, though many ceramic glazes still contained lead.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:27 AM on April 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also, having read TFA those tomato hornworms are pretty frightening.
posted by GuyZero at 9:28 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have some memory of a cartoon from my childhood (70s, maybe? early 80s?) which featured George Washington Carver eating a tomato right off the vine to the horror of all those who watched.

I've grown more tolerant of tomatoes during my decades alive, but they still aren't a food I would immediately think of when my body is hungry.
posted by hippybear at 9:31 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

My chickens think tomato hornworms are a lovely delicacy. Perhaps one day I'll take some video of my mini-dinosaurs eating one. Also, they love tomatoes, but they don't get nearly as much access as they'd like to the actual tomatoes, despite their best efforts.
posted by Sophie1 at 9:33 AM on April 18, 2017

You know what's even more frightening? When you find a tomato hornworm in your garden that has been colonized by parasitic wasps. You should have seen me jump straight up and backwards about 10 feet!

Mainly though this is just making me want my tomato seedlings to GROW FASTER.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:34 AM on April 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

I had always thought it was the similarity to potato fruit which are poisonous.

They're both members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which produce a range of alkaloids, from desirable to poisonous for humans. Unsourced/ uncited comments in Talk:Pewter claim it's not likely that lead poisoning from tomatoes served on pewter that fostered their reputation as "poison apples," claiming "The effects are gradual and subtile. More likely is the relationship of the tomato plant to the nightshade plant."

I've grown more tolerant of tomatoes during my decades alive, but they still aren't a food I would immediately think of when my body is hungry.

Ripe tomatoes, plucked sun-warmed from the vine, are truly a treat, and there's something I love about the smell of tomato leaves. But tomato hornworms are unpleasant pests, and the five-spotted hawkmoth isn't particularly attractive, so it's hard to welcome the caterpillar into your garden.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:36 AM on April 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Dude!!! TIL that tomato hornworms fluoresce in UV light!!! I am totally going out at night with a UV light to get those suckers! Thanks for the link filthy light thief!
posted by Sophie1 at 9:40 AM on April 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

The article in the second link may be misrepresenting the book it describes, but it sure does sound like a work that could have been a fascinating account of the life of James Hemmings, is, instead, a gee-whiz look at how Hemmings's slave owner loved gardening.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 9:43 AM on April 18, 2017

The growing season here is short enough (planting isn't usually until well into June) that we've never had luck with the big tomatoes. Our first near-frost night is too early for the big fruits to ripen, and we end up with green husks on the vine.

We do grow multiple mini/cherry varieties and they will produce giant yields.

Haven't had to deal with the hornworm thing thus far in my life. Thank goodness! *shudder*
posted by hippybear at 9:45 AM on April 18, 2017

Hornworms are shiny under UV light ? Good because those buggers have expert level camouflage. (I find them by looking for the stripped branches, and even then .. )
posted by k5.user at 9:46 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

The natives have apparently been eating this fruit for over a thousand years.

Europeans: They must be poisonous!
posted by 1adam12 at 9:54 AM on April 18, 2017 [13 favorites]

The potato had a similar misunderstood start right? Europeans cooked the leaves and not the root so it was considered unpalatable and grown as ornamation?
posted by The Whelk at 10:00 AM on April 18, 2017

I might be wrong in being highly sceptical about the pull-quote, but:

1) Wine has a comparable pH to tomatoes, and there was extensive use of pewter drinking vessels throughout the middle ages and on. Vinegar based sauces were also very popular in the same era. In this background, it seems unlikely to me that tomatoes would be singled out for suspicion because of an observed link between consumption and death.

2) Lead poisoning is a chronic, rather than acute, cause of death. People die from lead poisoning after being exposed for years, not after a single meal. Given the high exposure to lead that already existed, it is unlikely that a causal relationship would have been drawn.

Smithsonian's citation is of a book called "Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs for Today's Cook", which offers no onward citation, making it impossible to check the veracity of the claim. Can anyone offer a better citation for the idea that people believed tomatoes to be poisonous due to lead leaching?
posted by howfar at 10:06 AM on April 18, 2017 [31 favorites]

posted by en forme de poire at 10:26 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

"TIL that tomato hornworms fluoresce in UV light!!! I am totally going out at night with a UV light to get those suckers! Thanks for the link filthy light thief!"

I too know what I am (reluctantly) going to go do. I already have a nice small UV flashlight which typically only sees use when charging up the dog's glow-in-the-dark fetch ball.

"The growing season here is short enough (planting isn't usually until well into June) [...] Haven't had to deal with the hornworm thing thus far in my life."

Sometimes - but not often - I forget how nice it is to live here in Louisiana. We planted our tomatoes ... what, two weeks ago? Three weeks ago? and the cherry tomatoes are already showing clusters with a hint of orange visible. Our growing season here is basically 'April until the hornworms come and destroy everything' since we're not into spraying pesticides on our food and besides, by the time those bastards appear we're usually like, "Fine, we've had all the tomatoes we could eat anyway."
posted by komara at 10:28 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Komara - my growing season is very similar in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. I planted 4 weeks ago and I am definitely getting plenty of tiny clusters of tomatoes. I don't spray either, but as I said above, I am a big fan of feeding the critters to my chickens. I should have tomatoes until I cannot stand the sight of one and I'll likely make a couple of jars of marinara for the off season.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:35 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

howfar: good point on the acidity of wine.

Off topic somewhat, the entertaining mid-grade book How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous attributes the deaths of many famous people to lead poisoning from pewter wine cups (and mercury poisoning from makeup and other fun poisons).
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 10:35 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

They're both members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family
Which is why we can have the Pomato!
posted by fings at 10:50 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

And tomacco!
posted by GuyZero at 10:51 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Other nightshades: tobacco (check, plus hornworms), potato (check), eggplant, and hot peppers (not poisonous, but I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking they were).
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:53 AM on April 18, 2017

And tomacco!

Which is also a perfectly cromulent alchemy recipe in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
posted by radwolf76 at 11:00 AM on April 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

oh so THIS is whatever the hell it was Jefferson was doing in Monticello
posted by floweringjudas at 11:08 AM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

From what I remember from botany class is that the plants of tomatoes and potatoes are dangerous/poisonous due to their being part of the Solanaceae family as mentioned above. The fruits are another matter. Even potatoes, if not left under the dirt as they grow and end up having green areas on them are dangerous/poisonous.
posted by PJMoore at 11:26 AM on April 18, 2017

Got curious about this and used my prescription for Newspapers dotcom to do a bit of research about what was commonly known and understood, and when, about tomatoes in the US. -- at least as reflected in the the available set of contemporary American newspapers.

As little as fifteen years after Jefferson supposedly shocked guests by offering them at table, mention of tomatoes as common and healthy food begin to appear.

I found zero mention of tomatoes being themselves poisonous. In fact, as early as 1827 it seemed that the relationship between the acids in tomatoes and the lead in pewter was well understood, at least by some.

Early on it seems some still called them ‘love-apples’ and the press found it necessary to make the connection between the two terms.

Some highlights below.
Poughkeepsie Journal, 25jun1821
A writer in the American Farmer says that to rub a bedstead infested with bedbugs with a green tomato vine will effectively expel that most troublesome insect.

Evening Post (NY), 17jun1822
J. Collet will put up to order, preserved Meats, Birds of game, Tomates[sic], &c. in a manner that will warrant them to keep for twelve months, even in the warmest climate, he considers this to be very important to sea travellers.

Maryland Gazette, 02oct1826
A tomato 2 feet 3 inches in circumference was rasied this season by a gentleman of new London – Lynch, Vir.

Arkansas Gazette, 02jan1827
Love-apples -— An ingenious mode has lately been discovered in Spain of preserving for an indefinite time, the perfume and other qualities of the tomato, and of conveying it to great distances in small compass. This process consists in pulverising the fruit after having dried it in the sun, and in an oven. To preserve the powder, all that is necessary is not to expose it to the air.

Times of London,18nov1826
Living In Spain -- A family that I got acquainted with in a provincial town in Spain gave me an account of their expenditures. They were decent people and though with small means were visited by the rich. Their house was the resort of a very agreeable company.
[. . . ]
Manner of Cooking
Breakfast, at eight o'clock -- Beef, bacon, peas, onion, and a little spice, boiled for an hour in three pints of water, and the broth poured on a pound of bread, cut in thin slices. They take this soup with mint finely powdered.
Dinner at one o'clock -- This same meat and peas, boiled again with . . .
Supper -- The same beef chopped or minced and put to boil for an hour with tomatos [sic], capsicum, or a head of garlic with two spoonsful of oil, finishing with a plentiful dish of salad, onions, or cucumbers, according to the season.
Drink -- Water on all occasions. . . .

Hartford Courant, 25mar1828
SEED STORE of the Hartford County Agricultural Society.
HARVEY SEYMOUR has now on hand of the last year's growth, a much larger stock and a greater variety of GARDEN SEEDS . . . AMONG which are the following, VIZ.
Asparagus, large giant
Artichoke, green globe
Beans, early Canada
[. . .]
Tomato, or love apple, used in soups, &c. . . .
ALSO A great variety of Flower Seeds . . .
Interesting to me that the above seed ad both explains that tomatoes are the same thing as love apples and why you'd want to grow them.

Throughout the 1820s, there are many notices of tomato crops being in, and of particularly large specimens exhibited. There are also innumerable recipes for tomato ketchup, tomato catsup, tomato sauce, and other love-apple based savouries, Even a few "Dear sir, the tomato ketchup recipe you published is greatly inferior to this one from my home town . . . "

This next one is of special interest here, in that the author specifically cites the danger posed by the acid in the tomato leaching lead from pewter pots.
The Evening Post (New York. New York) 11 Sep 1827
From the Phoenix Alexandria Gazette, Sept 7
Messrs. Editors: The recipe for preparing Tomatoe catsup published in your paper of yesterday morning from the American Farmer differs from that which we have been in the habit of using here. It seems to be objectionable on two points.

First, the addition of vinegar, when the peculiar acid of the vegetable which is the basis of the preparation is so abundant and secondly, in the substitution of a pewter vessel for an iron one. The strong vegetable acids, aided by heat may form a salt with the lead of the vessel which would be highly poisonous; whereas all the salts of iron are innocent, and most of them salutary to the stomach. The following is the recipe in general use here: . . .
By the late 1830s, the tomatoe's reputation had evolved from potentially dangerous, to delicious, to common, to positively medicinal:
Poughkeepsie Journal 03 may1837
quoting the Southern Agriculturist: It is now generally know that tomatoes when just ripening makes pies or tarts of the most exquisite flavor. But it is to their medicinal qualities I would particularly call the attention of your readers. In speaking upon this head, Dr. Cook observes: 'of the hygenic or healthful properties of the tomatoe Prof Rafinesque says 'It is everywhere deemed a healthy and invaluable article of food. . . .
Other quotes from US newspapers in the 1830s
“Quickens the action of liver and bowels . . . “
“A sovereign remedy for dyspepsia and indigestion . . .”
“The Indians use it as a diuretic and to expel concretions from the kidneys . . . “
“A substitute for calomel . . . “

Finally, the inevitable: Tomato Pills. Yes, display ads for Dr. Phelps's Compound Tomato Pills and their competitors begin to appear in newspaper classified sections in the late 1830s. They begin to crowd out other ads.

Finally, in the 17jun1839 Hartford Courant, a reader has had enough and dares the publisher to reprint an expose' of tomato pills.

By the way, all the spellings and capitalizations of tomato (and 'love-apple') herein are as in the original, even where I neglected to insert a sic.
posted by Herodios at 12:00 PM on April 18, 2017 [38 favorites]

I can't stand raw tomatoes, but when sufficiently cooked to eliminate the acid, they're wonderful.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:51 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

metafilter: A substitute for calomel
posted by k5.user at 12:52 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

In the Disney 90s pseudo-Twain piece “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court,” the young man who has accidentally travelled back in time decides to teach a young lady about delicious American food by making her a cheeseburger. I remember this with startling clarity for two reasons:

-as he is cooking, he starts slicing a tomato, and she says “No, not a poisonous love-apple!!!” but he laughs and forces her to eat it. There is a lot that is weird there, but peak weirdness is why Camelot’s kitchen had a food they considered poisonous in the first place. The fact that he’s like “nah, it isn’t poison,” and she’s like “lol okay” seems normal in comparison.

posted by a fiendish thingy at 1:14 PM on April 18, 2017 [9 favorites]

peak weirdness is why Camelot’s kitchen had a food they considered poisonous NO EUROPEAN WOULD SEE FOR ANOTHER 1000 YEARS in the first place.
posted by Herodios at 1:28 PM on April 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

Check out also Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy. Much of interest inside. For instance, it was not initially Golden Apple (Poma d'Oro) but Love Apple (Poma Amoris). Why? Because Fernando Hernández ((1517-1587) author of Rerum medicarum Nouae Hispaniae thesaurus seu Plantarum animalium mineralium), introduced to the tomatillo, thought that opening the husk was a little too much like looking at lady parts.

Shows you what a few months at sea can do to a man.

Assuming, of course, that the story is true.
posted by BWA at 2:07 PM on April 18, 2017

This is the same process that drove the lead poisoning of Flint's water supply: a switch to a more acidic (and untreated) water supply, the Flint River.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 2:54 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Can anyone offer a better citation for the idea that people believed tomatoes to be poisonous due to lead leaching?

You're quite right: it's all bullshit. There's so much excellent food-history research out there, like David Gentilcore's Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy, that it's a pity the same old myths keep on getting peddled.

It's true that the tomato was initially regarded with suspicion by European botanists. But no one thought that eating tomatoes would actually kill you. John Gerard, in his Herball (which you can read online in the beautiful 1636 edition), didn't say that tomatoes were poisonous; he just thought they weren't very nutritious:
In Spaine and those hot Regions they use to eate the Apples [i.e. tomatoes, 'apples of love'] prepared and boiled with pepper, salt, and oyle: but they yeeld very little nourishment to the body, and the same naught and corrupt.

Likewise they doe eate the Apples with oile, vinegre and pepper mixed together for sauce to their meat, even as we in these cold countries doe Mustard.
As Gentilcore explains, this was all to do with traditional Galenic medicine. Since the tomato was cold and moist, it was liable to cause a humoral imbalance in the body unless it was cooked (to remove the moisture) and mixed with hot ingredients like pepper (to remove the coldness):
According to Galenic dietary principles, the qualities of foods had to be balanced, either individually or in combination with other foods. The tomato recipe was European rather than Aztec, and the tomato owed its limited initial use in Italy to the traditional concept of condiment. That is, the condiment counteracted or "corrected" the humoral qualities of the main dish, improving its texture or digestibility. The acidic and cold tomato served to cut through the dryness and heat of chicken and thus remained a "seasoning" -- in the literal sense of rendering something else ripe or palatable -- for other foods, rather than a food in its own right.
There's also quite a lot of visual evidence that tomatoes were being eaten and enjoyed. Murillo's painting The Angels' Kitchen (1646), in the Louvre, shows a kitchen with a tomato, two aubergines (eggplants) and a pumpkin. (For other artistic and literary evidence, see the very detailed paper by Marialuz Lopez-Terrada, The History of the Arrival of the Tomato in Europe: An Initial Overview (pdf).)

And the idea that aristocrats were being poisoned by tomatoes served on pewter plates? Also bullshit. You were far more likely to die of lead poisoning from cider passing through lead cider-presses or water passing through lead pipes. Pewter plates were a minor risk by comparison. And the groups most at risk of lead poisoning were, predictably enough, miners in lead mines and potters working with lead glazes, not aristocrats eating tomatoes.
posted by verstegan at 3:01 PM on April 18, 2017 [14 favorites]

I've always believed that tomatoes got their poisonous reputation because they looked so much like mandrake fruit, which was a Known Poisonous Thing.
posted by ninazer0 at 4:05 PM on April 18, 2017

Seconding the idea that lead is not acutely poisonous. We put lead into just about everything from water pipes to cookware to paint to gasoline right up until the current generation. The danger wasn't realized until recently because lead is a slow, chronic poison. Eating tomatoes from a pewter dish wouldn't have caused identifiable illness.
posted by ryanrs at 8:22 PM on April 18, 2017

According to Galenic dietary principles, the qualities of foods had to be balanced, either individually or in combination with other foods.

Heh, shades of the more modern complete protein myth.
posted by ryanrs at 8:24 PM on April 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

GuyZero: "Also, having read TFA those tomato hornworms are pretty frightening."

Missing from TFA is that hornworms hiss when provoked.
posted by Mitheral at 8:19 PM on April 20, 2017

Cautions to the Heads of Families concerning the Poison of Lead and Copper
-- Anthony Fothergill (c.1732–1813), London and Bath, 1790

Excerpted in the The Times (London, England) 11 Oct 1790, page 4
The mifchiefs, the Doctor obferves, arrifing from culinary poifons, prefent a wide field for difcuffion. The extenfive ufe of lead in various forms, enables it to affail all the avenues of life. Sometimes it attacks to human frame by an open affault, but more frequently it makes inroads to the conftitution as a fecret unfufpected enemy.

Various caufes confpire to favour its introduction into the fyftem. The arts of chymillry*, of medicine, and even of cookery, have all [illegible] lent their aid; fo that no perfon, of whatever rank or ftation, from the Prince to the Peasant can at all times pronounce himfelf perfectly fecure againft its filent depradations. Devoutly therefore, not ludicroufly, may we exclaim with Sir John Falftaff,

"Heaven keep lead out of us!"

[. . . ]

Lead in every form is unfriendly to animal and vegetable life. The Miners who dig the ore, the fmelters who reduce it to a metallic ftate, manufactureres of white lead, painters, plumbers; in a word, all who are much expofed to its enfluvia, bear teftimony to its pernicious effects. Its fumes are found no lefs deftructive to domeftic animals, fuch as dogs, cats, fowls, &c. nay, even vegetables in its neighbourhood foon lofe verdure; nor can plants thrive in pots compofed of this metal.

Its various preparations, as lithrage, red and white lead, are all poifonous, and their activity is increafed by their union with acids. Lead unfortunately thus liable to be corroded, or even diffolved by almoft every fpecies of acid, the dangerous confequences are proportionably increafed. For it not only unites with the ftronger mineral acids, but alfo with thofe of the weaker vegetable kind, as that of wine, beer, elder, vingar, verjuice &c. to which it imparts a manifeft fweetnefs, forming a falt, termed fugar of lead. Hence the foundation of that dangerous abufe of correcting acid wines and cider with lithrage, or other preparations of this metal. Lead alfo unite with expreffed oils, and other unctious bodies as butter, fuet, lard, &c.

In Holland it has been cuftomary to correct the more offenfive expreffed oils, fo as to fubftitute them for oil of olives, or almonds, by impregnating them with lead. Another horrible abufe, and whch merits the moft exemplary punifment! Deliberately thus to adulterate the common articles of life with a flow poifon, and wantonly to facrifice the lives of innocent perfons to unfeeling avarice, feems a refinement in villainy, at which human nature revolts, and which could hardly be credited in a Chriftian county! The favage tribes of the moft barbarous nations, who attack their declared enemies with poifoned arrows, are never known to difcharge them at their inoffending neighbours and countrymen.

to fuch an alarming pitch had the dangerous art of adulterating liquors arrived in France, that at length it became neceffary to make it a capital offence. I am unwilling to believe that any man would prefume to practice this Inhuman fraud, were he fully apprifed of the poifonous nature of the ingredient. That none of my readers may plead ignorance, I shall briefly mention its principal effects.

This metallic poifon then is powerfully ftyptic, and highly injurious to the nerves, hence it fuppreffes the natural inteftine dfcharges, producin obftinate coftivenefs** and a peculiar fpeces of cholic terminating in a palfy of the extremities, which generally deprives them of motion, without deftroying their fenfation. thofe fymptoms, being the genuine effects of lead, feem to mark its fpecific power and to diftinguifh it from every ohter poifon.

It moreover occafions a pale fallow countenance, contracting and wafting of the mufcles, numbnefs, tremors, languors, convulfions, epillpfy, and death. Thofe fymptoms vary according to quality of the poifon, the ftate, of the irritability of the fyftem, and other circumftances. Sometimes, without producing fpafms or other violent fymptoms, it only occafions a flow lingering indifpofition, which, however, lafts fome years, and at length generally eludes the power of medicine.

This well accords with what has been tranfmitted to us concerning the flow poifons of the ancients, and feems to confirm the fufpicion that their bafis was no other than a fecret calx of lead. May this fatal calx long reft in oblivion, and never more be revived!
* The art, apparently, of "feparating the different fubftances in mixed bodies by help of fire" -- in other words, "chemistry (obs.)"

** That's 'constipation' to you, bub.
posted by Herodios at 8:43 AM on April 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

And so:

Metafilter: Even vegetables in its neighbourhood foon lofe verdure.
posted by Herodios at 8:44 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

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