Red Menace: David Gentilcore Talks the Tasty History of the Tomato

Historians in the News

August in New England is the height of tomato season, when fat red beefsteaks, purple and green heirlooms, and tiny, sweet Sungolds beckon at the farmers market. They’re wonderful in crisp salads, as refreshing gazpachos, and all on their own. Perhaps most of all, tomatoes are synonymous with Italian cuisine.

Without the tomato, pizza would be bread and cheese, spaghetti would seem naked. The North End without red sauce? Impossible. But the tomato’s role in Italian food is fairly recent, according to David Gentilcore, a professor of early modern history at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.

In his new book, “Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy,” Gentilcore traces the tomato from its origins in the New World, where it was domesticated by the Maya, then cultivated by the Aztecs. It likely entered Europe via Spain, after conquistador Hernan Cortes’s conquest of Mexico. When it arrived on the scene in Italy, it was strictly a curiosity for those who studied plants — not something anyone faint of heart would consider eating. In 1628, Paduan physician Giovanni Domenico Sala called tomatoes “strange and horrible things” in a discussion that included the consumption of locusts, crickets, and worms. When people ate tomatoes, it was as a novelty. “People were curious about new foods, the way gourmets are today with new combinations and new uses of high technology in preparation,” Gentilcore said. Yesterday’s tomato is today’s molecular gastronomy....

IDEAS: When did the tomato become an integral part of Italy’s cuisine?

GENTILCORE: You can’t imagine Italian food without it. And yet most of these dishes, such as pasta al pomodoro, are fairly recent — from the 1870s or ’80s. Italian immigrants arriving in New York City or Boston were the first generation to eat these dishes as daily things. Making a rich meat sauce with maybe the addition of tomato paste, that Sunday gravy style, is something that happens only in the 20th century....

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