You say tomato


The apparent ambiguity of the Englischgruss (see under Mahler 4, and for Brahms, in The Annunciation in art and music) reminds me of Antonio Cesti’s spectacular opera Il pomo d’oro (1668). *

You may be disappointed to learn that the plot concerns not a tomato but the Judgment of Paris, with the prize of the Golden Apple. Still, I can’t help wondering if early performances prompted giggling (I’m like, “Hey guys, Cesti’s gone and written an opera about a tomato!”).

Pomodoro cover

The opera is mentioned in the fascinating, mouth-watering

  • David Gentilcore, Pomodoro!: a history of the tomato in Italy (2010),

whose basic culinary ingredients are liberally seasoned with wise observations on social and economic change.

The tomato’s uses were continually subject to change, from production to exchange, distribution, and production. […] The tomato is an ideal basis for examining the prevailing values, beliefs, conditions, and structures in the society of which it was a part and how they changed over several centuries.

In Chapter 1, “Strange and horrible things”, Gentilcore dates the recorded history of the tomato in Italy from 31st October 1548, when Cosimo de’ Medici presented a basketful to the excellencies of Pisa—who seem to have been bemused:

And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.

Remarkably, it would be well over 300 years before the tomato gained widespread favour among the Italian population in the pasta sauces we now know and love, belatedly becoming a national symbol—for Italian emigrants abroad, during the Fascist period, and later. Other New World imports (such as maize, potatoes, tobacco, American beans, chillies, cocoa, vanilla) gained acceptance more quickly.

Cesti titleCesti’s opera was premiered in Vienna; the composer died the following year, and I haven’t yet seen evidence of further performances—staging it would have been a massive undertaking. So audiences in Italy may even have been denied the opportunity of a good giggle, although word must have spread. Still, in Italy, over a century after the tomato was first recorded there, one might suppose that the word pomodoro (the pomo referring generally to fruit, not to the apple) at least had become part of the vocabulary of the elite who were the audience for such spectacles. But then, they would also be familiar with the ancient story—although from the simple synopsis one might not imagine that it called for elaborate stage machinery to depict tableaus like shipwrecks and collapsing towers:

The gods ask the Trojan prince Paris to decide which of the goddesses Venus, Juno, and Pallas (Minerva) is the most beautiful and thus deserving of the Golden Apple. Paris gives the prize to Venus. The spurned goddesses try to get their revenge until Jupiter decides to end the confusion, turns to the audience and awards the golden apple to the Empress Margaret Theresa [“Typical!”].

An early Miss World contest, then, with Paris in the role of Bob Hope.

The tomato had been introduced to Europe by Cortés, reaching Italy by way of Spain, as a botanical specimen. The physician-botanist Mattioli described it in 1544, using the name pomo d’oro in his 1554 revision. But confusingly, the term also continued to denote the fruit in the ancient myth of the Hesperides.

Gentilcore notes the early association of tomato and eggplant (or aubergine, splendidly advertised by British greengrocers as OBOS). The latter, incidentally, reached Europe from Persia by way of Andalucia.

In 1628 the Paduan physician Sala regarded tomatoes as “strange and horrible things”, following

a description of locust-eating in Ethiopia, spider- and cricket-eating in Padua, and ant- and worm-eating in India.

Indeed, to eat them was still commonly regarded as harmful, even poisonous.

Yet, as both Durante and Sala inadvertently suggest, someone was eating tomatoes, regardless of the dietary advice. Costante Felice, a physician near Urbino, tells us who: “gluttons and those eager for new things”.

Left, Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c1590; right, door frieze, Cathedral of Pisa, 1600/1601.
Artistic depictions of tomatoes were very rare before the mid-18th century; the emperor’s mouth is more likely to contain cherries than cherry tomatoes.

In Chapter 2 Gentilcore broadens the theme to consider Renaissance Europe’s apparent aversion to fruit and vegetables—based on the advice of physicians of the time (cf. Sleeper!). Consumption of vegetables increased through the 17th and 18th centuries, but an Italian culinary manual from 1590 contains not a single reference to them.

Still, health warnings were not necessarily heeded by either princes and courtiers or the common folk—as we’ve been noticing recently… Other treatises attest to a great variety of common vegetables and plants being consumed. In 1596 the English courtier Robert Dallington wrote:

Herbage is the most generall food of the Tuscan, at whose table a sallet is as ordinary as salt at ours; for being eaten of all sorts of persons, and at all times of the yeare: of the rich because they love to spare; of the poore because they cannot choose; of many Religious because of their vow, of most others because of their want. It remaineth to believe that which themselves confesse; namely, that for every horse-load of flesh eaten, there is ten cart-loads of hearbes and rootes; which also their open markets and private tables doe witnesse.

Indeed, the religious institutions made a virtue of a diet rich in vegetables. And Gentilcore notes the importance of markets; the ortolani market gardeners of Turin had their own religious confraternity. He offers an aside on what was described as the “incomprehensible predilection” in Rome for broccoli, later to become “le vainquer de macaroni“. To the consternation of English observers, salad (“the mixing of diverse and various things”) came into vogue. Olive oil was still used more for lighting lamps than for cooking.

As he comments, historians always have difficulty finding information regarding the diet of the poor. From an early-18th-century French report on the dietary habits of Naples, it’s clear that much of the population not only ate vegetables but subsisted on them—along with bread rather than pasta; and tomatoes were part of this regime.

Methods of preparation remained basic because the kitchen utensils remained basic. The peasant kitchen thus was basic, with only a few clay or wooden implements.

Pom 54

Recipe, 1705.

Chapter 3, “They are to be enjoyed”, explores the acculturation of the tomato in 18th-century Italy. By 1759 a survey of farming in Tuscany included it among the “fruits prized by men [sic: see below] as foodstuffs or as condiments for them”. Gentilcore surveys the different varieties of tomato.

Sardinia was a Spanish possession until 1720, and the Sardinians, at all social levels, may have been “the first [in ‘Italy’] to take the tomato seriously”. Disappointingly for those of us who supposed that sun-dried tomatoes were invented in 1970s’ Hampstead, they appear in a Sardinian recipe from the mid-18th century.

By the 1830s, but probably earlier too, enterprising peasant women in the Cagliari area were selling sun-dried tomatoes. This is an important reminder of the role of gender in agrarian change. Indeed, women frequently were responsible for the cultivation, preparation, and sale of foodstuffs, and tomatoes were becoming an important element of domestic production, if not consumption.

Pom 61

Recipes, 1773.

We now find tomatoes not only eaten cooked and raw, but preserved in a thick paste, and in sauces. Still, their appreciation was regional: for southern peasants they were a major ingredient of their ordinary food, but they played only an occasional role in northern cuisine—and this remains true today. **

Tomatoes were now becoming so common that people were throwing them away—or at least were throwing them. In Italy, tomatoes were the missile of choice to show disapproval of public performers, and the activity came to be known as a pomodorata.

An 1863 report refers to the poor of Naples eating something called pizza, “seasoned on the top with an abundance or oil or pork fat, with cheese, oregano, garlic, parsley, mint leaves, with tomato especially in summer, and finally sometimes even with small fresh fish”. As Gentilcore observes, tomato was not yet a basic element of pizza, but only one possibility among several.

Moreover, that report may also contain the earliest reference to pasta as a staple food accompanied by tomato sauce—the subject of Chapter 4. It coincided with the movement to unify the different states and islands into a single nation.

Indeed, the triumph of pasta was also remarkably late. Types such as lasagne, vermicelli, and maccheroni were already established by the 16th century (spaghetti was a latecomer), but pasta was eaten soft, cooked for long periods, and thus accompanied by dry condiments; it was still a side dish. The two best-known regions for production were the Ligurian coast and the Bay of Naples. 

Pom 73

By the mid-19th century the Neapolitans commonly ate pasta in taverns and as street food. It was now served slightly hard (vierd vierd: the expression al dente only became common after World War One)—a novelty that soon spread.

Making the preserve for the sauce (conserva, passata, salsa) was still largely a small-scale, local activity. Towards the end of the 19th century a French traveller in Calabria commented:

We are, in effect, in the season in which, in every Calabrian house, tomato preserve is made for use during the rest of the year. It is a solemn occasion in the popular life of these lands, a kind of festive celebration, an excuse for get-togethers and gatherings… Neighbours, and especially the neighbourhood women, get together in different houses one after the other for the making of conserva di pomi d’or, a procedure that culminates with a large meal; and they gossip as much as they can while crushing and cooking the tomatoes. It is here that for several months the locale’s chronicle of scandal is identified and commented on; it is here that those old rustic songs, which are today so avidly collected by scholars keen on folklore, are repeated from generation to generation.

By the 1880s tomato paste began to be exported to the USA. Its industrialisation was concentrated (sic, as Gentilore notes!) in Liguria, Emilia Romagna, and Campania. Tomatoes were first canned in the USA and Britain; in Italy, Parma took a leading role in both cultivation and preservation. Tomato ketchup was already becoming the national condiment of the USA.

The marriage between pasta and the tomato is usually said to have taken place in Naples around the 1830s. Pasta al pomodoro only gradually became a national stereotype from the late 19th century—just as millions of Italians started crossing the ocean to the New World, where the tomato had originated. It was to make repeated crossings.

So while I find it a challenge to imagine Botticelli and Michelangelo not tucking into a plate of penne arrabiata, such dishes would have been hardly more familiar to Verdi as they were to Monteverdi. Even as late as the 1930s when Umberto Saba met Gabriele D’Annunzio, he was more impressed by the novelty of the plate of pasta with tomato sauce (“a crimson marvel”) than by the Fascist celebrity himself.

The first acclaimed pizza was cooked for Queen Margherita in Naples in 1889; of three pizzas prepared for her, one was seasoned with tomato, mozzarella, and basil—the red, white, and green of the new national flag. In fact, its history goes back considerably earlier.

Above we saw a folk version of pizza in 1863 (for much earlier antecedents, see wiki). Pizzas were publicly made and sold in Naples by late in the 17th century. During his stay there in 1835, Alexandre Dumas described it as the staple diet of the city’s poor—with pasta eaten only on Sundays. By the middle of the century the city had over eighty pizzerie. In the 1880s Carlo Collodi, writing for a young audience, was underwhelmed:

Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a flat bread of leavened dough, toasted in the oven, with a sauce of a little bit of everything on it. The black of the toasted bread, the off-white of the garlic and anchovies, the greeny yellow of the oil and the lightly fried greens, and the red bits of the tomatoes scattered here and there give the pizza an air of messy grime very much in keeping with that of the man selling it.

The juxtaposition of hunger and gluttony is one theme of Collodi’s Pinocchio, first published in book form in 1883.

Pinocchio jumps into the sea, only to find himself in a fisherman’s net. Pinocchio explains to the fisherman that he is not a fish to be eaten, but a puppet. The fisherman replies that he has never caught a “puppet fish”, and asks how he would prefer to be cooked: “Would you like to be fried in the frying pan, or would you prefer to be stewed with tomato sauce?”

Meanwhile bread, often eaten stale, remained a basic foodstuff. In Puglia there was a popular proverb Ce mange paene e pomedaore nan ve me’ o dattaore (“He who eats bread and tomato, to the doctor will never go”).

In Chapter 5, “Authentic Italian gravy”, the scene shifts to the USA, along with successive waves of migrants. From 1876 to 1945 over nine million Italians crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life, most of them arriving between the 1890s and 1920s (cf. Accordion crimes).

Left, making tomato paste the Sicilian way, Madison WI, mid-1920s;
right, supper on the Lower East Side, NYC, 1915.

Ventura’s 1886 short story “Peppino”, set in New York, describes pasta with tomato sauce, then still a novelty. Gentilcore goes on:

Making homemade tomato paste (conserva) was, for many immigrant families, partly a symbolic link to the town left behind, partly a matter of taste preference, and partly good economic sense.

Many immigrants also resorted to canned tomato paste. At first, such preserves were imported from Italy, but local production soon competed. The discussion subsumes the varieties of tomato, and the history of additives—including coal tar and formaldehyde.

In the early 20th century, the UK was the second main importer of Italian tomato preserves; meanwhile the British took to growing their own, with the growth of the suburbs and the increasing availability of greenhouses.

Ironically, American immigrants were often unaware of how much change was taking place as they strove to maintain continuity.

As emigrants, they had left Italy because of “hunger”, but as immigrants nostalgia and longing quickly set in. This was not nostalgia for the “land of poverty”, of course, but for the festive foods and the community to which they belonged. Consequently, they reproduced the food production and consumption patterns that were more dreamed of than actual in the world left behind. The “old country” became a mythologised place, which immigrant parents described to their children as a place where poverty and hunger coexisted with food that was good and natural and where they all ate together as a family.

The ritual of the Sunday dinner signified that the family was living the American dream, and

the focus for the transmission (or, if you prefer, the inculcation) of cultural mores and aspirations from parents to children. The place of origin that parents described to their children on these occasions was not so much a real place as a place remembered, a place imagined. The immigrants gradually filled it with idealised constructions, which had a very real function [for them]: to interpret, explain, criticise, and even deny the New World present, to both themselves and their children.

An account from 1940s’ America remains true today (note the typical use of the male pronoun!):

The Italian forced to live far away from his homeland, wherever in the world he sets his table, rejects every kind of cooking in order to establish his own, the simple but tasty cooking of his native land. And more than anything else he does not give up his traditional dish of macaroni with tomato sauce.

The new hybrid of the Italian-American restaurant too became stereotypical to the point of caricature—the “red-sauce joint, with its dishes smothered in tomato sauce, its red-checked tablecloths, and its candles stuck in Chianti bottles”.

By the 1930s the clientele of such restaurants had shifted from poor single immigrant bordanti to “bohemians” in search of an “Italian experience”.

Somewhat gleefully, Gentilcore also documents the invention of canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, dating from the early 20th century.

The sight of GIs opening cans of tomato spaghetti must have been a strange one to southern Italian peasants as the allied forces made their way up the peninsula in the latter stages of World War II. […]

It is easy to look down on such products, but it was a new way of eating food. After all, both spaghetti with tomato sauce and the invention of canning began about the same time, in the mid-19th century, so why shouldn’t they be united? It is just that we attribute different meanings, different values, and a different social status to pasta al pomodoro and canned spaghetti.

Returning to Italy, Chapter 6, “The autarchical tomato”, takes the story on to the Fascist era.

The mass migration of millions of Italians across the Atlantic had a positive effect on dietary practices in Italy in the form of remittances and return migration. […] For the first time, these remittances gave many Italians a chance to put aside money or goods.

Pom 144

Thus food preservation flourished as never before. But as economic prosperity grew, expectations and aspirations continued to change.

Gentilcore continues the story of the industrialisation of tomato processing—noting a company in Felino near Parma that rejoiced in the name Società anonima di coltivatori per la produzione delle conserve di pomodoro.

Changing patterns of organised labour had been giving rise to social unrest since early in the 20th century. Despite labour laws, even in the 1940s much of the burden for cultivation was borne by women and children. After World War One strikes and riots erupted. Mussolini’s Fascist Party sought to restore order—and to make Italy self-sufficient in food.

While the campaign of the Fascist Futurist Marinetti to abolish pasta was fruitless (indeed, Neapolitans came out onto the streets in protest), he didn’t extend his proscription to the “light and adaptable” tomato. Even ketchup survived the regime, though with their aversion to foreign words, it was renamed Rubra. Much Fascist food advertising was aimed at the resourceful housewife.

After 1924, when the USA restricted immigration, the Italian regime sought to replace it with Libya as a destination; as they proclaimed autarchia, or self-sufficiency, tomato cultivation was propounded there too. None of these projects bore much fruit.

Pom 182

For Faccetta nera, see here.

Pom 166

On the eve of Italy’s fateful entry into World War Two in 1940, it was exporting virtually all of its fresh tomato crop to Germany; Gentilcore observes that Italy’s “Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany that year might as well have been called the “tomato pact”.

Chapter 7, “The tomato conquest”, opens with a reminder of the poverty of Italy (particularly the chronically afflicted rural south) in the 1950s, as depicted in the neo-realist films of the day. But industrialisation, urbanisation, refrigerators, and the rise of supermarkets further transformed people’s eating habits. In the two decades from 1950, Italians grew in height but not in weight, despite the ever greater popularity of pasta. As stereotype and reality began to fuse, Italians could now eat spaghetti al pomodoro to their heart’s content. It was increasingly popular in Britain and the USA too, although pundits like Elizabeth David resisted the cliché, stressing the regional variety of la cucina Italiana.

Gentilcore’s material is now supplemented by feature films, such as two scenes, both from 1954—Totò’s spaghetti scene in Miseria e nobiltà (1954):

and Alberto Sordi’s scene from Un Americano a Roma (also 1954):

The recipe for spaghetti with tomato sauce included in Sophia Loren’s In cucina con amore (1971) is a tribute to the earthy recipes of her grandmother.

The disparity between north and south persisted. In his song Siamo meridionali! (1980) Mimmo Cavallo referred back to the family bathtub of southern migrants, classic receptacle for the growing of tomatoes (coltiviamo pomodori ddint’e vasche ‘e bagno):

Such migration from the south influenced the eating habits of both the migrants and the hosts.

In the Hollywood “pasta paradigm” (see e.g. this 1978 article by Daniel Golden), “the tomato sauces prepared and consumed by gangsters echo the bloody acts they commit”. One thinks of two scenes from Goodfellas (1990)—at home:

and in prison:

Pomodoro! can’t quite find a place for one of the great spaghetti-eating scenes: in Tampopo, Japanese debutantes are strictly schooled in the etiquette of eating them properly (another failed project, like Mussolini’s Fascism):

Nor does Gentilcore mention the “pizza effect” of anthropology, whereby elements of a nation or people’s culture are transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported to their culture of origin (cf. Tibetan “singing bowls”). The tomato played a role in the dubious “Mediterranean diet”.

By the 1980s, EU subsidies were further transforming the food economy, with Puglia benefitting notably. The Epilogue surveys the current tomato scene in Italy and beyond. As multinationals service our demand for year-round supply of “fresh” foodstuffs by sending them on vast, irrational journeys, Gentilcore addresses the global problem of labour slavery, organised crime, and trafficking. As immigrants began performing the tasks that Italians now shunned, the organisation and exploitation of labour by gang bosses was already featured in Pummaro’ (Michele Placido, 1989). Heavily staffed by African immigrants, and more recently eastern Europeans, the labour force is more vulnerable than the giornatori of yesteryear. Polish gang bosses exploit the Poles who work for them.

In a justly nostalgic passage which will strike a chord in Britain and elsewhere,

Nowadays, tomatoes look the same everywhere in Italy. Whereas “the real tomato has different, complicated shapes, with splits and streaks, and often pronounced baroque features, which so pleased the Neapolitan painters of the 17th century” [actually not yet, as Gentilcore points out], tomatoes today taste of nothing; they are full of water.

EU subsidies were not only unwelcome to producers in California, but hit West African countries hard. In turn, Italian growers have been hostile to Chinese imports, with the term “yellow peril” rearing its ugly head again (cf. Fu Manchu).

Gentilcore notes the Chinese term fanqie 番茄, “foreign eggplant”—the tomato was introduced there quite early by European missionaries, but still remains quite niche. BTW, it’s also known as xihongshi 西红柿 (“Western red persimmmon”), which reminds me of yet another story that I heard from Tian Qing (e.g. here, and here): during a phase of reviving Maoist “red songs” in Xi’an, some wag suggested the city might be renamed Tomato (Xihongshi 西红市 “Western red city”). I must also put in a word for the succulent tomatoes grown by Li Manshan.

This book will make you hungry—not just for knowledge.

* * *

All this is yet another instance of how things we assume to be eternal and immutable, like harmony and democracy, turn out not to be so. Another reason why I’ve cited Pomodoro! at some length is because its integrative approach, while perhaps a hallmark of most research worth its (um) salt, bears an affinity with that of ethnomusicology, including reception history—as for musicking, so for tomato-ing.

We might follow this up with Gentilcore’s 2012 book Italy and the potato, 1550–2000 (on a rather different tack, see Music and the potato). See also In the kitchen, and this sequel on risotto, with yet more links—as well as an alternative interpretation of the famous song You say potato

* Not to be confused with his long-lost Russian cousin Cestikoff, whose opera Il trasporto del pompino, regrettably not about fire-engines, was banned in St Petersburg. Allegedly.

** Cf. The Monty Python cheeseshop sketch:
Cleese: “How about Cheddar?”
Palin: “Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, Sir.”
Cleese: “Not much call—it’s the single most popular cheese in the world!”
Palin (smugly): “Not round here, Sir.

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