HISTORY AND CULTURE
Tomato and Tablewares
27 Jul 2013 06.20 am by K. Daniel
In this article we are invesigating claims, the history, and myth surrounding our everyday produce. Think of it as Mythbusters for Fruit (and vegetables). And as their saying goes, the difference between science and fooling around is simply writing things down, we will investigate some interesting stories and claims, in the name of science. Today's focus, tomatoes.
Historically, tomatoes were not something one would consider eating. The notions that it was inedible came from accounts of its association with other members of its family, Solanaceae, which includes deadly night shades and belladonna. But in addition to the ominous relationship, there was perhaps another reason that it was not eaten. Up until the 1500s, it was believed that tomatoes were poisonous.
The assessment came as to no surprise, tomato plants, as with all members of the family Solanaceae, contain a diverse range of alkaloids, plant chemicals which may potentially be toxic. For tomato plants, it was determined that all parts of the plant were poisonous, and thus unfit to be eaten.
Those who were brave enough to consume its fruit had mixed results, most tended to be fine but there were several cases at which the consumers suffered various ailments, some of which resulted in death. This exceptional few cemented the tomatoes reputation as a poisonous plant, thus unfit to be eaten.
But what changed? Why do we eat tomatoes today? Well one claim notes on the plates and cutlery used at that period of time. Pewter, a metal alloy primarily made of tin, was highly popular up until the 18th century because they were regarded to be attractive table wares with its metallic sheen. At the time, the quality of the wares produced was highly varied, and standardized practices were limited.
The main issue with pewter, or at least those used back in that time period, can be attributed to its lead content. Levels of lead were variable depending on the manufacturer, and thus lower quality wares would tend to have higher lead levels. Unreacted lead in itself does not pose a huge problem, but when it enters the human body then you have a recipe for disaster. It was believed that acidic foods would leach lead out of pewter plates. Tomatoes, like many other fruits, are acidic, and thus eating tomato on a pewter plate was akin to accidental suicide. Coincidentally it was around that time period that tomatoes were introduced and popularized, thus the association.
That is how the story goes anyway. But like many often recited stories, accounts are blurry. Yes pewter was popular, and indeed it contained trace amounts of lead. The thing is lead poisoning is a slow, long process. This means that it would be nearly impossible to pin point or associate one single food item with the poisoning. In those days, potentially any type of acidic food would end up killing you if you dined on pewter plates.
Neither was the loss of favour with pewter due to poisoning alone, but rather a combination of factors. As pewter wares became more readily available towards the general public, it lost favour with the aristocrats who believed them to be commonplace. Silver and gold wares were often used instead due to their attractiveness.
Towards the end of the 18th century, new wares made of brittania metal (similar to pewter without the lead) and porcelain, both of which relatively cheaper compared to the higher priced pewter, gained favour with the general public, and so pewter use rapidly declined.
And so the hypothesis of tomatoes being poisonous because of the cutlery used to eat them, although believable, may be fictional for the most part. After the appearance of tomato plants in the European market, both the Spanish and Italians embraced the new South American fruit and neither country have any claims or documentation on the fruits apparent toxicity.
The United Kingdom and several Northern European countries did not adopt the fruit however simply because its association with other poisonous plants such as deadly nightshade and belladonna by botanist. No wonder that it was only seen fit that they threw these at bad performers to end the show early.
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