Tomatoes are one of the most well-traveled vegetables — or fruits — that there is and one of the most popular crops in home gardens, but after they were introduced to Europe, centuries went by when they were grown and admired — but not eaten. To dig into the fascinating history of tomatoes, from their origins to recent developments, my guest this week is William Alexander, the author of “Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World.”
William is a New York Times best-selling author who has penned three critically-acclaimed books, including “The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden.” His writing is well researched, insightful and often humorous. He published “Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World” in June to immediate acclaim. Publishers Weekly said: “Alexander’s narrative delivers a story that’s as informative as it is funny and filled with awe … Food lovers will savor every bit.”
Before proceeding with my conversation with William, I want to take a second to remind you that my new book was released this month. It’s titled “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest” and can be found both online and at local bookstores. It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
The $64 Tomato
William’s book “The $64 Tomato” is about the first garden that he and his wife, Anne, had. They had bought a house with acres of land and a wonderful sunny spot, and they dove right in. He says they were like kids in a candy shop who overdid everything. They put in 22 garden beds and filled all of them because they couldn’t bring themselves to leave any fallow.
William was reading gardening books but couldn’t relate what was happening in his garden to what he was reading. For example, books told him to cut the runners off three-year-old strawberry plants, but he couldn’t tell the difference between a first-year strawberry plant and a three-year-old plant. Then there were the groundhog and deer problems that the books didn’t say anything about.
He decided to write a book for novice gardeners by a novice gardener — but he didn’t go through with it. “It’s a good thing I never actually wrote that book because it would’ve been a terrible book,” he says. “The last thing we need is another gardening book like that.”
William shifted gears due to a weed of all things. He says that while he struggled in the garden, his archenemy was a pernicious weed called purslane.
“You can’t get rid of it,” he says. “I tried burning it. I tried ripping it out. It is just impossible to get rid of.”
One day after a particularly brutal session of weed-pulling in 90° weather, William went inside for a break and an iced tea. He picked up The New York Times and on the front of the food section he saw an article about renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten serving purslane drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice in his restaurant. Here he was trying to destroy purslane in his garden and Jean-Georges was selling it for $18 a plate.
It occurred to William that people would find humor in his gardening experience, so that’s when he changed the direction of his book.
“This phrase kept running through my head: ‘One man’s weed is Jean-Georges’ salad,’” he recalls. “And so I wrote a humorous book about the difficulties of gardening and all of the problems that we have in the midst of all of the joys and the wonder of it all.”
At the end of the year, William sat down to figure out how much each of his precious Brandywine tomatoes had cost him to grow. He harvested 18 tomatoes that year, and the math worked out to $64 spent on each, which inspired the title of his book.
10 Tomatoes that Changed the World
William set about writing his new book, “10 Tomatoes that Changed the World,” in November 2019, just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States. He had been planning to visit Italy to research tomatoes, and he didn’t let the pandemic stop him.
At that time, Italy allowed travel into the country as long as visitors quarantined in a hotel room for two weeks. There was a way to bypass the quarantine, however. Visitors who were staying in the country for less than 120 hours did not have to quarantine. So William and Anne took two madcap 120-hour trips to Italy, the first to the south, where San Marzano tomatoes come from, and the second to the north, near Milan.
The Tomato’s International Journeys
In his book, William sums up how the tomato we know today came to be.
When Hernán Cortés and other Spanish conquistadors arrived in what is now Mexico around 1520, they found all sorts of fruits and vegetables that were unfamiliar to them in the Aztec capital, including piles of all sorts of tomatoes in the markets.
Though port authorities kept track of every piece of gold and silver that was taken from the New World and brought to Europe, there were no records of the first tomatoes or tomato seeds that crossed the Atlantic. But at some point, tomatoes made that trans-Atlantic journey and were eventually cultivated in Europe.
The first record of tomatoes in Europe was in 1548 in the palace of Cosimo de’ Medici of the Medici dynasty, which ushered in the Renaissance. Cosimo, who was already growing corn on his farm at that point, got word that a strange new fruit from the New World had arrived. The steward on Cosimo’s staff recorded what happened during the tomato’s unveiling: “They just looked at each other in wonderment.”
The tomatoes were not served with dinner that night, All Hallows’ Eve, or the next, a feast day. In fact, tomatoes were not served that much in Europe for the next 300 years.
During his time in Italy, William visited Cosimo’s palace and that same kitchen where the tomato was first shown off. He notes that the Italians named the strange fruit from the New World “pomodoros,” which means golden fruit, suggesting that the first tomatoes in Europe were yellow, not red.
Though tomatoes were not eaten in Europe for hundreds of years after their arrival, the Italians planted the seeds in window boxes to grow as ornamental plants. “It’s probably the fact that they grew them as just attractive plants in the gardens that kept the tomato alive and kept it from vanishing altogether in Europe until they finally started to eat them in the 19th century,” William says.
Tomatoes that originated in Mexico were brought to Italy, made their way around Europe, and eventually were taken to New England.
There are probably a couple of different paths that tomatoes took, according to William. It’s likely some English settlers brought over seeds when they went to the American colonies, though it’s also odd because tomatoes were not popular in England, he says. Another path, he says, is that the Spanish brought tomatoes to the Caribbean, from where seeds may have been brought to the southern United States by enslaved people.
Tomatoes were more popular in the South than the North for some time. “They were about as popular in the North into the early 1800s as they were in Italy,” William says. “They just were said to be foul smelling and disgusting, and attracted all kinds of nasty worms.”
Legend says in September of 1820, Colonel Johnson — a wealthy Salem, New Jersey, horticulturist and statesman — ate a bucketful of tomatoes on the steps of a courthouse to prove that tomatoes are edible. William explains that while it may be true that Colonel Johnson introduced the tomato to New Jersey, the legend of the colonel standing on courthouse steps eating a bucketful of tomatoes to prove they are not poisonous was a writer’s embellishment. The legend was featured in 1949 on the CBS radio historical reenactment series “You Are There,” and has been cemented as fact ever since, William says.
William points out that Thomas Jefferson was serving tomatoes to guests at dinner at least 10 years earlier than Colonel Johnson promoted tomatoes in New Jersey.
In the first half of the 19th century, Americans began canning tomatoes, first in glass and later in tin. Tin worked better than glass containers because tin cans could be shipped without breaking, William notes.
“What really made tomatoes popular in cans was the Civil War,” he says.
The North had canning at that time but the South did not. Many soldiers ate canned tomatoes for the first time during the war, and once it was over, they wanted to continue eating them. “Canned tomatoes and the tomato business really took off after that, and actually the largest canning tomato center in the country was in Colonel Johnson’s, backyard, Salem County, New Jersey,” Williams says.
Joseph Campbell offered a single beefsteak tomato in a can and other canned tomato products. Then in 1897, chemist John T. Dorrance created condensed soup for the Joseph Campbell Preserve Company — later renamed the Campbell Soup Company. The iconic soup can’s red and white color scheme was inspired by Rutgers University football uniforms and school colors.
Fruit Vs. Vegetable
After the Civil War, the South’s economy was in ruins. Prior to the war, Southern farmers shipped early- and late-season tomatoes to the North, but during the war, the North sourced tomatoes from the Bahamas and the Caribbean.
To help the South’s farmers after the war, a tariff act was instituted that put an import tariff on vegetables — but not on fruits. This led to an argument before the Supreme Court over whether tomatoes are vegetables or fruits.
“The largest importer of vegetables in the North sued,” Williams says. “He paid the tariff on his shipment of Caribbean tomatoes but paid it under protest because he said that botanically, the tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. And some seven years later, that case finally wound its way to the Supreme Court.
“It was a very strange trial. I believe there was only one witness called. The rest of the trial consisted of both sides reading the definitions of fruit and vegetables from various versions of Webster’s and other dictionaries.”
The court agreed that tomatoes are botanically a fruit, just like peas, squash and cucumbers — anything in which seeds are contained in fleshy fruit. But the court ruled that in common use, tomatoes are considered a vegetable, as part of the main course of dinner, and not a fruit, which is served at dessert.
“The plaintiff lost his case and had to continue paying his duties on the tomatoes,” William says.
The History of Tomatoes in Italy
By 1900, tomatoes played a very important role in Italy. Cirio, the largest canning company in Italy, developed a new tomato that would come to be known as the renowned San Marzano tomato. Company representatives went around the country trying to determine where San Marzano would grow best. William notes that tomatoes are grown all over Italy, from north to south. Cirio ended up on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, a farming area with rich soils and the place where pizza originated.
That remains the only place where authentic, European Union-approved San Marzano tomatoes are grown. William spoke to growers there who said the most important part of the San Marzano terrior is the spring water from the Sarno River. The soil with its clay substrate and the salt air from the farms’ proximity to the sea were other factors the growers cited.
The Origins of Roma Tomatoes
Roma tomatoes are plum tomatoes bred using San Marzano tomatoes as one of their parents.
Romas are open-pollinated varieties originally bred in the 1950s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a lab outside Washington, D.C. The first Romas were developed to resist fusarium wilt, and today’s “Roma VF” tomatoes resist both fusarium and verticillium.
Commercially, the reason why the Roma nudged Sam Marzano out of the way was that it is a determinant variety, meaning plants grow to a certain size and put on all their fruit and ripen at the same time. San Marzano is an indeterminate that just grows and grows, fruiting until frost or disease kills off the plant. For efficiency and ease of harvest, commercial growers prefer determinant plum tomatoes.
The Man Behind the Ketchup
Henry Heinz of Heinz ketchup fame was a neat person who was smart, with a lot of integrity. He was a great businessman and marketer, and William says he is one of the true heroes of “Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World.”
Henry Heinz’s first successful venture was selling pickles, though he lost the business in the recession of the 1870s. He wanted to rebuild his pickle venture but there was too much upfront investment, so instead, he tried tomato ketchup.
Ketchup, a British invention that derived from Asian fish sauces, had been around for a long time at that point. The kinds of ketchup that were around in the United States up until the 1870s or 1880s were mostly made from brined walnuts, mushrooms or anchovies. Somewhere along the way, William, says, tomato canners realized they could cook down underripe or overripe tomatoes — essentially floor slop at their facilities — that would otherwise be wasted, add some spices, sugar and salt, and come up with a new type of ketchup
Using benzoic acid as a preservative, Henry Heinz created his eponymous ketchup. Within a year, Heinz was the top ketchup company in the country and expanded to Europe.
Things were going great for Heinz when the United States got a new head of the Department of Chemistry, which would become the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. The new head wanted to get additives out of food, and there was a burgeoning pure food movement in the country. He had his sights set on ketchup.
Heinz and his scientists fought the Department of Chemistry tooth and nail, though all the while, back in their lab, they worked on removing additives.
Heinz wondered if his company could make ketchup that would last for a few weeks without spoiling, like his mother had made at home. He looked at old recipes and found they had more sugar, salt, vinegar and spices. His chemist started to tinker with his company’s ketchup formula. They added more sugar, which made the ketchup too sweet, so they added vinegar to compensate.
“He found that leaving the spices in, rather than filtering them out, seemed to help make the ketchup last, but still he could not get a preservative-free ketchup,” William says. “… If Heinz had had his ketchup outlawed, he would’ve been ruined for the second time in his life, and he had a lot more at stake this time.”
It occurred to Heinz’s scientists that Heinz’s mother had been making ketchup with tomatoes from her garden that she cut up, and not from floor slop.
“What they had been overlooking all along was that there’s a natural preservative property in the pectin within the tomato itself,” William says. “But pectin is kind of a fleeting chemical. It’s only in the tomato if the tomato is freshly picked, if it’s not too ripe, if it hasn’t been cooked too long.”
Heinz started to have fresh tomatoes shipped into Pittsburgh by rail and boat.
“It turned out that that was a secret that allowed Heinz to make a benzoic acid-free ketchup,” William says. “Now, the coda to the story is that at this point now, Heinz was the first. He was the only one that knew how to do this. So he kind of found religion, you might say. He switched sides in the great benzoic acid battle, joined forces with the FDA and ran an ad campaign equal to any campaign he ever ran trying to sell his products, saying, ‘We have to get additives out of bottled foods.’ But to this day, Heinz ketchup is additive free, has the same shelf life, unrefrigerated, which is about 30 days, as a bottle of Heinz ketchup when it was introduced in 1907.”
The Story of Burpee’s Big Boy
The Big Boy, by Burpee, was the first well-known hybrid tomato, developed in 1949.
Prior to Big Boy, tomatoes would grow 12, 15 even 20 feet high — and tomato growers complained about the need for a ladder to harvest fruit. Burpee assigned a young breeder to work on a lower-growing tomato plant. Big Boy proved to also have disease resistance and be a good slicing tomato with a wonderful smell.
Big Boy remains one of the most popular tomatoes in the Burpee catalog and similarly named tomatoes include Better Boy, Summer Girl and Early Girl.
Who Killed the Tomato
Many tomatoes sold in supermarkets today lack flavor. They are simply tasteless, which has to do with how tomatoes are mass produced. I did a podcast episode on this situation a few years ago with Barry Estabrook, the author of “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.”
William also investigated by going to Florida himself. There, tomato “fields” were not fields as we know them.
“There’s not a tablespoon of soil in sight,” he says. “These tomatoes are grown in beach sand. I mean, they could be 50 miles from the shore, but it used to be underwater.”
William says he doesn’t just mean sandy soil, but literally, sand. He even found a seashell in one of the tomato “fields.”
“Sand has no nutrients in it so the tomatoes have to get everything they’re going to get from fertilizer,” he says. “But they first have to go and they have to heavily poison the soil.” Because the soil never freezes to control pests, insecticides and fungicides are applied generously.
“They come through with these trucks and they poison the soil, and they cut back in a couple of weeks and they fertilize the soil with very strong fertilizer that will leach towards the roots,” he says.
During the growing season, the surface is basically shrink-wrapped in plastic.
William wanted to ask a tomato growing operation CEO why his tomatoes have no flavor, but the CEO anticipated the question and cut him off. The CEO said people always ask why his tomatoes can’t taste like Grandma’s tomatoes. His answer: “Because Grandma’s tomato couldn’t be picked, shipped a couple thousand miles, sit in the warehouse for a while before it goes to a store.”
The CEO said they had to make certain choices in order to have a tomato that can be shipped and still be eaten.
“Over the next couple of days, I saw what those choices were,” William says. “The first one is the mature green tomato.”
These tomatoes are picked when they are still Kermit the Frog green and hard as a rock, William says.
“The workers go out, they crouch before a plant, they strip an entire plant of tomatoes in about 30 seconds,” he says. “They fill a basket and then the basket is handed to a dumper who’s on a truck that rolls down the beds with them. They’re thrown into the truck. When they reach the packing plant, they’re dumped like a thousand pounds at a time — dumped into a water bath. They’re really hurled around like softballs. So if they were anything close to ripe, you couldn’t do that.”
The tomatoes are treated with ethylene gas, which causes them to ripen. The amount of gas they get is relative to how fast the growers want them to ripen for market.
“That explains a lot as to why they’re so lousy, but even that doesn’t explain everything,” William says. “One of the reasons they’re lousy is that they’re not bred for flavor. They are bred to travel.”
Some are also bred to have square shoulders so that fast food restaurants that buy the vast bulk of these tomatoes don’t have as much waste on the top and bottom when slicing tomatoes. They are bred to hold their shape after they are sliced so they can sit in a case for hours, and they are bred to withstand a really hot day and a sudden Southern Florida downpour.
“So in short, they are bred for everything except flavor,” William says.
One advantage that greenhouse growers have over field growers is that they don’t have to worry about breeding for weather, so they can breed more for flavor, William points out. Greenhouse tomato breeders are also developing smaller tomatoes, like cherry and grape, which seem to be easier to get flavor from.
“One of the trends we’re seeing with the greenhouses is a lot of them are being built sometimes right outside or even in cities in vertical farms,” he says. “They take old factories and they repurpose them. So you’re getting much fresher fruit.”
Because the tomatoes don’t have to go long distances before they are sold and consumed, breeding for shipping and shelf life is unnecessary.
William says greenhouse tomatoes are grown using aquaponics — so forget any notion of terroir. But aquaponics has its upside because it uses a 10th of the water of field-grown tomatoes. That is a big deal considering drought issues.
“In many of the tomato growing regions, drought is becoming a huge problem,” William notes. In fact, there are concerns of a tomato sauce shortage because drought has diminished the California tomato crop.
Greenhouse use is growing to beat drought and to grow crops year-round where it would otherwise be too cold.
“It started with tomatoes, but now it’s cucumbers, it’s peppers,” William says. “Strawberries, more and more, are coming from greenhouses. Implications of this are rather large.”
He sampled tomatoes inside a Northern greenhouse as snow was falling outside and wondered what the carbon footprint of heated greenhouses is. It turns out greenhouse tomatoes have a carbon footprint that is six times as large as field-grown tomatoes.
“Do we want to be taking something that grows perfectly well outdoors and bring it in indoors?” William asks.
On the positive side, fossil fuel-free heating sources for greenhouses are being explored. For example, in the United Kingdom, greenhouses are being built hear sewage treatment plants that give off a lot of heat.
The Heirloom Tomato Renaissance
The heirloom tomato renaissance is a backlash to the lousy tomatoes we’ve all been eating for years, whether it be the supermarket mature green tomatoes or the hybrid tomatoes that the seed companies were selling.
“People started to realize that tomatoes didn’t taste like they used to in years gone by,” William says. “At the same time, there was a group of folks who were getting into swapping seeds.”
It was the 1970s when a young homesteading couple realized that they were the only ones growing a tomato variety that came from seeds that one of their grandmothers had brought over from Europe. They wondered who would keep growing it when they died. The couple, the Whealys, founded the Seed Savers Exchange, which started by swapping seeds via ads in the back of magazines. That’s where we get the Brandywine and the Purple Cherokee tomato varieties.
This started the heirloom craze, and it came at the same time that farmer’s markets were cropping up. Farmers realized they could sell heirloom tomatoes for several dollars each.
We owe the Whealys and these other people who got involved in this early on such a huge debt,” William says. “Their names are not widely known today, nor is their story. But we owe them a huge debt.”
The Galapagos Tomato
The late tomato geneticist Charlie Rick was a botanist at University of California, Davis, who was described as a cross between Charles Darwin and Indiana Jones. He made trips down to South America every year where the ancestor of the tomato we know originated. He would bring the currant-sized wild tomatoes back to UC Davis.
“Many of the properties that are in hybrid tomatoes today, particularly, disease-resistant properties, come from those samples that he brought back from the Andes,” William says. “Well one year he made a trip over to the Galapagos Islands and he came across, again, a very small currant-sized tomato, which he called the Galapagos tomato.”
He brought it home to see what he could do with it but he just couldn’t get the seeds to germinate after trying all of the tricks of the trade. He even tried feeding the tomatoes to Galapagos finches, since some seeds need to pass through the digestive tract of local fauna before they will germinate. That didn’t work either, so next he shipped seeds to a colleague who works with Galapagos turtles.
Rick couldn’t find the seeds in the turtles’ dung so he suggested feeding the turtles lettuce spiked with red dye to make the seeds easier to find. That did the trick. He found the seeds in the dung, and they successfully germinated.
“They turned out to have an interesting property,” William says. “These Galapagos tomatoes were jointless. That is, they did not separate at the pedicel, but they separated at the next weakest place, which was right at the stem. So you could, with one hand, pluck a tomato, or with a machine, you could shake a tomato off the stem and it would come off cleanly without the stem. So he bred this property into tomatoes at the time, and before long, every single tomato in the state of California was being mechanically harvested. And today there are almost no canned tomatoes that are picked by hand in the United States.”
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with William Alexander on tomatoes that changed the world. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you grow a world-changing tomato? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the waitlist here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World” by William Alexander
“52 Loaves: A Half-Baked Adventure” by William Alexander
“Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart” by William Alexander
“Tomatoland” by Barry Estabrook
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, National Wildlife Federation and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.