Italian Food Before the Tomato

By | May 18, 2019

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Engraving From 1869 Featuring Christopher Columbus Landing In America In 1492. Source: (

We all know Christopher Columbus, our elementary school teachers taught us that he sailed the ocean blue in 1492. He also began an important process of knowledge and material transfer between Europe and the Americas called "The Columbian Exchange." Beyond introducing diverse populations to new diseases and technologies with which they weren’t accustomed, the exchange also brought new plants and foodstuffs to innovative chefs around the world.

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America cut on white background. Source: (

Solanum Lycopersicum

Among the many notable crops in this process was the humble tomato. Today, we struggle to imagine Italian food without it--from velvety pasta sauces or the base of a soup to salads like Panzanella or caprese, tomatoes hold a special place in our conception of Italian cuisine. But Italians, like other Europeans, were very reticent to adopt the suspicious new nightshade.

Beyond concerns about its familial connection to deadly belladonna, the poison used to kill Emperor Augustus of Rome in 14 C.E, there already existed a robust canon of culinary traditions on the Italian peninsula. Resistance to change is common, especially in an arena as intimate as the food we consume, and it took almost three centuries before the tomato was commonly accepted as a staple of Italian cooking.