The tomato is, of course, a staple in Italian food but it was not always that way. As David Gentilcore explains in a recent Boston Globe interview regarding his new book, the aptly titled Pomodoro! A History of the Tomato in Italy, the popularity of the tomato in Italy is relatively recent. In fact such canonical dishes as pasta al pomodoro first became popular in Italian immigrant communities in Boston and New York City in the late nineteenth century.
When the tomato first came to Italy in the seventeenth century from the New World, it was regarded with suspicion. Gentilcore explains, “It’s a vine. Anything that grows along the ground was seen as a plant of low status, something you only give to peasants. And the tomato was thought to hinder digestion because it was cold and watery.”
So, what explains the rise of the tomato in Italy? According to Gentilcore:
Tomatoes took off in Italy because they became an industry, mostly for export. Italians were too poor to buy such things. Most of the country’s processed tomatoes are exported. In Italy, up until the 1950s, there was a large part of the country, even where they produce tomatoes, where they wouldn’t eat the stuff.
In the interview Gentilcore also talks about how the mafia has infiltrated the distribution of tomatoes, the Fascism’s distrust of ketchup, how the famed San Marzano variety was created specifically for the British market, and the futuristic techniques the Dutch are developing to grow tomatoes in winter.
(To read an excerpt.)