How One Man Changed the Public’s Mind About the Tomato

Robert Gibbon Johnson proved tomato was not poisonous

It is difficult to overstate the contribution of tomatoes to our culinary culture. Imagine how poorer we would be without pizza, marinara sauce, salsa, or any of the countless dishes that rely on the savory vegetable. (I know… Technically, it is a fruit, but we are simply following the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that says a tomato is a vegetable.) While tomatoes have been around for all of human history, it may surprise you that they have been on the menu in North America for a comparatively short time. Tomatoes were avoided at all costs and believed to be poisonous until one man changed everyone’s mind.

Today, physicians will encourage including tomatoes in your diet to provide vital nutrients to your body. Until the end of the eighteenth century, it was a different story. Doctors warned that tomato consumption would lead to such maladies as appendicitis and cancer of the stomach.

There was one fellow who thought differently. Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey encountered the tomato on his travels and brought some home with him in 1808. He wanted to encourage tomato production in the United States and offered awards for anyone who could grow the largest tomato each year. He did not have a lot of takers, however, because of the conventional wisdom about its toxic side effects.

Johnson grew frustrated when his words failed to persuade the public. Finally, he decided on an extreme measure to prove that his prize plant was safe. On September 26, 1820, Johnson stood on the steps of Salem’s courthouse. As a crowd gathered to watch, Johnson stood there and ate an entire basket of tomatoes. Everyone watched, with morbid fascination at what was apparently an attempt to commit suicide in full public view. When Johnson wiped his mouth and patted his full tummy, demonstrating that he felt no ill effects from his snack, he proved the tomato was safe. North America’s love affair with the tomato started that day and hasn’t let up yet.

Read more fun facts about food.

Read more fun facts about health.

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