The tomato is a plant in the nightshade family that is typically cultivated for the purpose of harvesting its fruit. Savoury in flavour, the fruit of most varietals ripens to a distinctive red colour. The word tomato comes from a word in the Nahuatl language, tomatl. The specific name, lycopersicum, means “wolf-peach”.
Aztecs and other peoples in the region used the fruit in their cooking. It was being cultivated in southern Mexico and probably other areas by 500BC. It is thought that the Pueblo people believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large lumpy tomato, a mutation from a smoother smaller fruit, originated and was encouraged in Mesoamerica.
Tomatoes are now eaten freely throughout the world, and their consumption is believed to benefit the heart among other things. They contain lycopene, one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. In some studies lycopene, especially in cooked tomatoes, has been found to help prevent prostate cancer. Lycopene has also been shown to improve the skin’s ability to protect against harmful UV rays.
They are used extensively in Mediterranean cuisine, especially Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines. The tomato is acidic. This acidity makes tomatoes especially easy to preserve in home canning whole, in pieces, as tomato sauce, or paste. Tomato juice is often canned and sold as a beverage. Unripe green tomatoes can also be breaded and fried, used to make salsa, or pickled. The fruit is also preserved by drying, often by sun, and sold either in bags or in jars in oil.
The leaves, stems, and green unripe fruit of the tomato plant, as a member of the plant genus Solanum (Nightshade), contain the poison Solanine, which is toxic to humans and animals. Children have been poisoned by a tea produced from the leaves of the tomato plant. The fresh fruit is however harmless.
The town of Buñol, Spain, annually celebrates La Tomatina, a festival centered on an enormous tomato fight. Tomatoes are also a popular “non-lethal” throwing weapon in mass protests; and there was a common tradition of throwing rotten tomatoes at bad performers on a stage during the 19th century. Embracing it for this protest connotation, the Dutch Socialist party adopted the tomato as their logo.