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David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Col. Johnson's Dramatic Demonstration

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

April 24, 2023

minute read

basket of tomatoes
black and white drawing of a man

Col Robert Gibbon Johnson (credit: Wikipedia)

According to legend, an eccentric New Englander by the name of Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson announced he was going to consume a tomato on the courthouse steps of Salem, NJ on the morning of June 28, 1820. An avid horticulturist, Col. Johnson wanted to prove that contrary to the belief of most people at the time, tomatoes were not poisonous. Despite dire warnings from his personal physician who predicted "The foolish colonial will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. Should he by some unlikely chance survive his skin will stick to his stomach and cause cancer."

Accounts of the event suggest that hundreds of onlookers flocked to the courthouse to watch the spectacle of this distinguished gentleman causing his own demise by eating poisonous tomatoes. Instead, they were shocked when the colonel (accompanied by a small band he had hired for theatrical affect) ate the tomato and survived. In fact, it is said the only thing that died that day was the long-held belief that tomatoes are poisonous.

Although the authenticity of Col. Johnson's public display of courage has been questioned, it is accepted that tomato gained popularity as a food source shortly after 1820. By the mid-1800's, tomato was widely planted and available in dozens of different cultivars. By the late 1800's, tomato's place in western culture was firmly "planted."

Most authorities agree that the wild ancestor of tomato originated in moderate altitudes of the Andean region of South American now occupied by Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Domestication and use of tomato as food probably first occurred in Central America as evidenced by archeological finds and linguistic records.

The Aztecs are credited with first growing tomato for food and helping to name it. In fact, the modern name "tomato" is derived from tomati, the word for this plant in Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs. According to one account, the Aztecs mixed tomatoes, chilies, and ground squash seeds into a concoction not unlike our modern salsa. However, because of its perishable nature, tomato likely never occupied a great deal of importance in their diet.

Spanish conquistadors such as Cortez probably were the first Europeans to encounter tomato when they arrived in Central America and Mexico early in the 16th century. It is presumed they took seeds of the plant back to Europe where it soon found favor in the Mediterranean countries of southern Europe (especially Italy). There it was given the name pomi d'oro, or "apple of gold." The latter indicates the first tomatoes used as food by Europeans bore yellow fruit. Later, tomatoes were grown in Spain and France, but more as a garden curiosity than as a food source. The French called tomato pomme d'amour from whence the English and early American term "love apple" was derived to describe it.

yellow tomatoes on a vine

Linguistic records indicate the first tomatoes consumed by humans probably were small and yellow. (Credit: Pixabay)

Tomato belongs to the Solanaceae (Nightshade) plant family whose members contain different forms and amounts of toxic glycoalkaloids. Atropa belladonna, commonly known as deadly nightshade, is one of the family's more notorious members and the source of belladonna. The latter has seen use as an illicit hallucinogenic drug and beauty aid in Europe. Belladonna as a hallucinogen is said to produce visions and the sense of flying. German folklore maintains it was used by witches (the origin of Halloween scenes of witches flying on broomsticks) to summon werewolves, a practice known as "lycanthropy."

black tomatoe

Deadly nightshade is one of the more notorius members of the Solanaceae plant family to which tomato belongs. (Credit: Pixabay)

The Latin for wolf is lycos and tomato soon became known as "wolf peach" in many parts of northern Europe because of its kinship to deadly nightshade. In the 18th century Carlos Linneas, the father of binomial nomenclature, gave tomato the scientific name of Lycopersicon esculentum which, literally interpreted, means "edible wolf peach." Recently, however, tomato's scientific name was changed to Solanum lycopersicon, placing it in the same genus as potato.

Some of the presumed toxicity of tomato in late medieval Europe might have been associated with tableware of that era. Aristocrats, whose illness and death likely would have received wide acclaim, commonly ate from plates made of pewter. The latter is an alloy of tin that, especially in days of old, contained a significant amount of lead. It is speculated by some that the acidic nature of tomato caused lead to be leached from pewter plates on which tomatoes were served. Thus, death was the result of lead poisoning indirectly caused by tomatoes.

sliced tomato on a metal plate

The interaction of the acids in tomato with the lead in pewter plates used in 18th century Europe is thought to have contributed to the perception of tomato's toxicity. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Tomato was a late comer to the United States and the exact date of its arrival is unclear. Some suggest the colonists brought tomato seeds with them as they immigrated from Europe; others maintain it did not arrive until after the Declaration of Independence was signed. In either case, Thomas Jefferson, who was a progressive agriculturalist as well as a gifted statesman, grew tomato as an ornamental at Monticello in 1781. Later it was taken to other of the original thirteen states. Tomato was considered by most at that time to be of questionable safety as a food source and its early use was ornamental or medicinal in nature. It was reported to be useful in "pustule removal," perhaps due to its high acid content.

Another interesting aspect of tomato's rise to popularity was the debate whether it should be classified as a fruit or a vegetable. While this might seem trivial to most, its classification was of great important to those who first grew it commercially because of taxation and import tariffs established to protect American vegetable growers. Nix vs. Heddon was a case questioning the classification of tomato that went all the way to the Supreme Court. In an 1887 ruling, the Court unanimously classified it as a vegetable which was subject to import quotas and taxation. Hence, while botanically tomato is a fruit (ripened ovary), functionally (and legally) it is a vegetable.

mutli-colored tomatoes

It is estimated there are nearly 10,000 tomato varieties today, available in many colors, sizes and shapes. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Be it a fruit or a vegetable, today tomato is America's favorite garden plant and an important part of its agricultural industry. Despite being shunned for centuries because of its perceived toxicity, tomato slowly but surely made its way into our culture and now is considered as "American as apple pie." Growing tomatoes in one's garden is an activity good for body and spirit. With the gardening season upon us, many gardeners are contemplating how to win the annual neighborhood bragging rights of having the first ripe tomato of the year. Taste buds everywhere have been dulled all winter by the consumption of bland, "shipped in" tomatoes. True tomato connoisseurs of this delightful food source go to great lengths to assure the early and plentiful production of the subject of Col Johnson's dramatic demonstration. May your crop this year be both early and bountiful.

mutli-colored tomatoes on vine

Although considered poisonous for centuries, tomato is America's number one garden vegetable today. (Credit: Pixabay)

Tomato fun facts

  • The average American consumes 80 pounds of tomatoes each year.
  • Tomatoes are grown in 85% or America's home gardens.
  • 60 million tons of tomatoes are produced annually worldwide.
  • The largest tomato ever produced weighed 7 pounds and was grown in Oklahoma.
  • The world record for the most tomatoes harvested from a single plant over a 12-month span is 32,194 tomatoes that weighed a total of 1,151 pounds.
  • There are more than 10,000 tomato cultivars.
  • Tomato is the official state vegetable of New Jersey; tomato juice is the official state beverage of Ohio.
  • Tomatoes are rich in vitamins C and A and cholesterol free.
  • Lycopene, a red pigment in tomato, is a powerful antioxidant that might prevent certain types of cancer.
  • Tomatoes are best stored at temperatures 55° F or above. Refrigeration causes a reduction in nutrition and loss of flavor.
  • The Spanish town of Buñol annually hold the world's largest "tomato fight." Called La Tomatina, the festival involves 40,000 people throwing 150,000 tomatoes at each other.

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REVISED: April 22, 2023