Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World


By William Alexander

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New York Times bestselling author William Alexander takes readers on a surprisingly twisty journey through the history of the beloved tomato in this fascinating and erudite microhistory.
The tomato gets no respect. Never has. Stored in the dustbin of history for centuries, accused of being vile and poisonous, appropriated as wartime propaganda, subjected to being picked hard-green and gassed, even used as a projectile, the poor tomato is the Rodney Dangerfield of foods. Yet, the tomato is the most popular vegetable in America (and, in fact, the world). It holds a place in America's soul like no other vegetable, and few other foods. Each summer, tomato festivals crop up across the country; John Denver had a hit single titled "homegrown Tomatoes;" and the Heinz tomato ketchup bottle, instantly recognizable, is in the Smithsonian.
Author William Alexander is on a mission to get tomatoes the respect they deserve. Supported by meticulous research but told in a lively, accessible voice, Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World will seamlessly weave travel, history, humor, and a little adventure (and misadventure) to follow the tomato's trail through history. A fascinating story complete with heroes, con artists, conquistadors and, no surprise, the Mafia, this book is a mouth-watering, informative, and entertaining guide to the good that has captured our hearts for generations.



Tenochtitlán, Mexico. July 1, 1520.

The Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés had miscalculated, badly. Having massacred and connived his way into the Aztec island capital of Tenochtitlán seven months earlier, he and his small army were in desperate straits. Montezuma, both his protector and his prisoner, was dead, struck by a stone hurled by his furious subjects, who now turned their rage on the invaders. Outnumbered, cut off from the mainland, and under siege, the conquistador saw but one hope of saving the lives of his 250 men. Should he fail, the dead soldiers would be the fortunate ones; the unlucky captives could look forward to having their still-beating hearts ripped out of their chests.

Packing up all the stolen treasure they could carry, the Spaniards staged a desperate midnight escape, using portable bridges constructed in secret to span the breached causeways. The heavy load of gold proved unwieldy, however, winding up at the bottom of Lake Texcoco, an incalculable loss of wealth the likes of which the world had never seen. But Cortés would escape, regroup, and reconquer—with a vengeance. Within fourteen months, this once-thriving civilization would be in ruins, having fallen victim to Spanish aggression, germs, and their insatiable lust for silver and gold. But the true treasure of Mexico, one that in the end would have an impact comparable to that of all the precious metals in the New World, would soon find its way on a ship to Europe, to forever change the course of history.

I’m speaking, of course, of the tomato.




Pisa, Italy. All Hallows’ Eve, 1548.

The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de’ Medici, descended the long staircase of the Palazzo Vecchio after receiving word from his steward that a basket had arrived from the duke’s country estate outside of Florence. As the household gathered round to witness the introduction of a strange vegetable from the New World, it would seem that tomatoes were about to be introduced to Italy by the famous and influential Cosimo de’ Medici, and really, could you think of a better person? A free-spending patron of the arts and sciences who had just financed Pisa’s first botanical garden, the grand duke, in public life since the age of seventeen, was an amateur botanist with a special interest in New World plants, as was apparent from the rows of maize that greeted surprised visitors to Villa di Castello, one of his numerous Tuscan estates. And he had a Spanish wife, Eleonora di Toledo, whose family in Spain had access to the many botanical specimens arriving from the Americas.

Now Cosimo had his hands on tomatoes, destined not only to become almost synonymous with Italy, but on a course to influence the cuisine of the entire world, from American ketchup to Indian tikka masala. Surely an epic moment! What would follow next? The birth of pizza and spaghetti? A dinner invitation to Michelangelo? The dramatic moment is recorded by the steward in reverent, almost biblical tones: “And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.”

What they said next was not recorded, but I suspect they looked to the heavens and thought, What the fanculo???

Given that the following day was All Saints’ Day, a traditional feast day, one wonders if the tomatoes might have been intended for that use. But no tomatoes were served for dinner. Not that day, nor the next. Nor the year after, nor the decade after. Nor even the century after. In fact, the vegetable that is so closely associated with Italian food that one would be forgiven for assuming (as I confess I once did) that it’s a native plant of Italy would not secure its place in Italian cuisine for another three hundred years.

Still, the event is historic, as it represents the first documented instance of the tomato’s arrival in Italy. And when the steward sends a polite note back to the estate that the basket arrived safely, he gives, for the first time anywhere in Europe, a name to these strange imports from the New World—pomodoro.

As for the latest strange New World import to drop in at the Palazzo Vecchio, it’s clear that the current occupants can’t quite figure out what to make of me either, or why I’ve come all the way from America to visit what now serves as a prefettura, the government headquarters for the province of Pisa. The palace where dukes and duchesses (and on at least one occasion, tomatoes) once gathered is now an office where you might come to get a fishing license or pay your tax bill. The magnificent baronial chambers of Cosimo de’ Medici have been converted into workplaces with metal desks and filing cabinets; the crystal chandeliers have been replaced by harsh fluorescent lighting; and most disappointingly of all, no one here is the least bit aware of the botanical significance of the former palazzo (although they seem cheerfully willing to take my word for it).

Granted, I didn’t expect a plaque commemorating tomatoes—perhaps if Cosimo had only done something with them—and there are arguably one or two sites of greater historical significance in Pisa, including a certain lopsided tower, but still, I feel a little let down. The secretary who is acting as my guide must notice my crestfallen gaze at the Office Depot decor. “If we kept all the historic buildings as they were,” she explains, “we would have no place to live and work. This is Italy.”

Fair enough, and I suppose the situation is more than balanced by the fact that Cosimo built Florence’s Uffizi, today one of the most magnificent art galleries in the world, as—you’ll never guess—administrative office space. So, it works both ways. Although that’s small comfort at the moment, because after months of working through Italian bureaucracy, a language barrier, and, not least, a global pandemic to arrange this pilgrimage (in retrospect, I should’ve just said I wanted to do a little fishing in Italy), it seems that I’ve come four thousand miles to see a roomful of copying machines.

Leaving the dreary offices, the secretary takes me across a courtyard into what she says is an unrestored wing of the palazzo, where the prefetto, the regional administrative official, lives on the second and third floors, his staircase guarded by an impressive carved lion’s head on the balustrade. I’m led through a doorway, and—What the fanculo???

We’re in Cosimo’s old kitchen, dominated by a long wooden table that runs nearly the full length. Indoor plumbing has been added and the appliances have been updated (the prefetto has his own residential kitchen upstairs; this one is used for receptions and the like), but, I’m told, the kitchen is mostly unchanged from Cosimo’s day. Airy and spacious, it has room for easily a half dozen cooks, but what catches my eye is the stunning blue-and-white sixteenth-century tiled floor that extends up the walls, meaning, I note with some envy, that after a messy meal the kitchen could be simply mopped from floor to ceiling.

A pair of windows framed by heavy wooden shutters provide abundant natural light, and the room has direct access to the main road and the Arno river, which is literally across the street. This access is critical, the secretary tells me, because the kitchen is where all palace deliveries, whether by land or sea, would have been received. “Wait, so this would be—” Yes, she confirms, smiling, before I can finish. This is certainly where the de’ Medici household would’ve gathered to greet the mysterious basket of fruits from another civilization.

Just not where they would’ve cooked them.

What were Cosimo’s tomatoes like? His steward maddeningly leaves out any description, but I’m hoping I can get at least an idea by heading across town to the cathedral. This requires passing through the umbra of an almost unnaturally white tower that, to my eye at least, is leaning so precariously that it seems ready to come toppling to the ground like a stack of poker chips should a tour group all stand on the same side after climbing to the top.

You can climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa? I’m shocked—you’d think that this priceless landmark, already around (and listing to the south) for 149 years when Cosimo shrugged off his tomatoes, would be off-limits to anyone not named Quasimodo. And, while we’re on the topic, future tower builders take note: Pisa is Greek for “marshy land.” Maybe next time consider constructing a massive tower in a city whose name means “bedrock.”

The tower, although the main attraction of the neighborhood today, was an afterthought, a bell tower built later to accompany the adjacent cathedral, which upon its completion in 1118 was the largest and most magnificent in Europe. The current doors, however, are “recent,” cast in 1600 after a fire destroyed the original ones. The three sets of massive, elaborately decorated bronze portals consist of panels of Old and New Testament scenes framed by friezes of both local and exotic flora and fauna: cucumbers, pea pods, apples, nuts, squirrels, turtles. There is even a rhinoceros, which was the emblem of Cosimo’s cousin and predecessor as Duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici, whose assassination by his best friend in 1537 thrust the teenage Cosimo into power.

And, if you look closely, there, on the lower left side of the far-right door, frozen in time, is what is unmistakably a tomato. Although it’s not the kind of tomato typically seen today. It’s segmented—ribbed, or furrowed, like an acorn squash, into six sections. The smooth, spherical tomato would not make its debut for another two hundred years, although I’ve noticed that these ribbed ones are still favored in Pisa markets.

The frieze on the doors of the Pisa Cathedral includes a sixteenth-century tomato. (Photo by the author.)

The cathedral doors were built in the workshop of the Flemish sculptor Giambologna, an inaugural member of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, the prestigious art academy founded by Cosimo de’ Medici in 1563. Cosimo again! In fact, he knew Giambologna well, although any intriguing notion of a connection between Cosimo’s tomatoes and Giambologna’s is dashed by the fact that the grand duke predeceased the casting of the doors by a quarter century, dying at the age of fifty-four. Still, the fact that a tomato is represented (two, actually) tells us that the pomodoro was alive and well in Italy in 1600. It just wasn’t being eaten.

Yet other edible plants brought over from the New World were quickly embraced. Maize was ground into polenta; beans were simmered in soups and stews; all of Europe would soon be smoking up a tobacco-fueled storm; and the potato would even make its way to far-flung Ireland, where it would become, with disastrous consequences, a staple among the peasantry. All before Italians started eating tomatoes. What took so long?

I put that question to Giulia Marinelli, a guide at the Museo del Pomodoro, the world’s only museum dedicated to the tomato, located a couple of hours north of Pisa, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

“It was considered for many years a decorative plant,” she says, grown as curiosities in botanical gardens. “Although there was a Franciscan who, even in the sixteenth century, understood that the Mexican people ate those fruits, both cooked or turned to sauces, and also raw.”

That would be the Spaniard Bernardino de Sahagún, who went to Mexico as a missionary in 1529, on the heels of the Conquest. I don’t know how long he’d planned to stay, but probably less than the sixty-one years—the rest of his life—it wound up being. Bernardino was captivated by Aztec culture, even by what remained of Tenochtitlán, a city that Cortés had found “so wondrous it was not to be believed.” Before the conquistador left it a smoldering ruin, the island city, crisscrossed by canals filled with small boats and canoes, had been connected to the mainland by five causeways and boasted parks, gardens, plazas, and—well before Europe even had the concept—zoos. Tenochtitlán (the site of present-day Mexico City) was perhaps the largest, cleanest, and most prosperous city in the world, with its jewelers turning out delicate and intricate works that rivaled the artistry of the finest craftsmen of Renaissance Europe.

The sophistication of Aztec civilization extended to its agriculture, much of which took place in chinampas, floating farms. Constructed by weaving reeds into stakes planted in a rectangular grid arrangement in shallow lake beds, then filling in the underwater boxes with organic materials (including human waste), these aquaponic farms, totaling 2.3 million acres, grew maize, chile peppers, squash, beans, and a round red or yellow vegetable that the Aztecs called xitomatl.

A native of the coastal highlands of Peru and Ecuador, where the pea-sized fruits were apparently neither particularly appreciated nor cultivated, tomatoes had been domesticated in Mexico for at least a thousand years before the Spanish arrived. The Aztecs used them to flavor soups and stews, fried them with peppers, or chopped them up fresh with chiles and herbs to make what the Spanish described as a salsa (which simply means “sauce”) to accompany meats and fish—as well as the occasional human, as an Aztec victory banquet often featured the flesh of the vanquished. One conquistador reported detecting the disconcerting aroma of bubbling tomatoes from the enemy camp on the eve of battle, speculating that he was the missing ingredient, which might be the first recipe of sorts that we have for a Spanish tomato stew.

In Tenochtitlán, Bernardino de Sahagún found an abundance and variety of tomatoes that would put many a twenty-first-century American farmers’ market to shame:

The tomato seller sells large tomatoes, small tomatoes, green tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, thin tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, large serpent tomatoes, nipple-shaped tomatoes. Also he sells coyote tomatoes, sand tomatoes, and those which are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red, quite ruddy, ruddy, bright red, reddish, rosy dawn colored.

But be careful who you buy from, he warns, because the “bad seller sells spoiled tomatoes, bruised tomatoes, and those which cause diarrhea.” (Some things never change.)

The Franciscan has been called “the first anthropologist” because of his original work in pioneering methodical strategies for studying an indigenous culture, including valuing elders and women as sources, learning the native Nahuatl language, and writing history from an indigenous worldview. His work culminated in his twenty-four-hundred-page groundbreaking study of Aztec culture, General History of the Things of New Spain.

Bernardino sent periodic drafts of his detailed study of Aztec culture (and diet) back to Spain and the Vatican, continuing his research right up until his death in 1590. His descriptions should’ve settled any questions about the edibility of tomatoes. “However,” Giulia explains, “the manuscript was not published until 1829,” having been suppressed by the church for being, let’s say, a tad too sympathetic toward the heathens whom Bernardino had been sent over to convert to Western religion and culture—not the other way around. And the last thing the Spanish monarchy wanted published was an account of the Conquest told from the indigenous point of view. “So, three hundred years,” Giulia says, with a slight sigh.

Yet the book’s earlier publication might not have made much of a difference to the tomato’s early fortunes. Other Spanish missionaries and naturalists documented the use of tomatoes in Mexico as well, but tomatoes were more challenging than inviting: They’re inedible when green, go from ripe to rotten in no time, fall apart when cooked, and have a consistency and flavor that resembled nothing in the European diet. Not to mention the fact that tomatoes had to compete for the public’s attention with the dozens of exciting new foods coming over from the Americas almost by the week—some 127 botanical species in all—and, let’s face it, tomatoes, much as we love ’em, aren’t exactly chocolate.

Just when did tomatoes arrive in Europe? We can pinpoint many events of the Conquest down to the hour, but historians haven’t been able to determine even the decade that tomatoes made landfall, because the Castilian tax collectors at the Port of Seville who collected the quinto real—the royal fifth—logged every last coin, necklace, and silver plate that came off the galleons, but couldn’t have been less interested in plants, never mind seeds. (Future historians of this century will have it easier, being able to study, for example, the May 2018 attempted smuggling of a single slice of tomato into the United States, thanks to the airport sandwich that has resulted in my being flagged by US Homeland Security as an “agricultural violator,” I suppose for life. And it was a lousy tomato, besides.)

When the tomato started to circulate throughout Italy, Giulia says, it was so foreign that Italians weren’t even sure which part of the plant was meant to be eaten. Some gourmands pronounced it inedible after munching on the leaves. And, Giulia adds, “It was considered poisonous by many.” (The leaves, in large quantities, are.) Certainly, being in the nightshade family did the tomato no favors, for its fellow nightshade, belladonna, is one of the most toxic plants on the planet, having killed off more popes, cardinals, and Roman emperors than syphilis. Belladonna’s toxicity belies its unthreatening name—“beautiful woman” in Italian—which comes from its former use by Italian women to dilate their pupils to an alluring size, the allure perhaps proving too great for those donna who went from bella to blind after repeated use.

Still, one has to wonder why—or even if—the tomato was singled out as being poisonous, while other members of the nightshade family, including some that were obviously more closely related to the tomato than belladonna—eggplant and peppers, for example—had long been part of the Italian diet. In fact, the tomato was sometimes misidentified as a new type of eggplant by sixteenth-century botanists, who therefore certainly knew it wasn’t poisonous.

It wasn’t until the early 1600s that tomatoes started to be eaten, likely gaining their earliest acceptance in Andalucía, the Spanish province that includes Seville, their port of entry. Records from Seville’s Hospital de la Sangre show a purchase of tomatoes during the summer of 1608—but never again, suggesting that its patients weren’t clamoring for more. Not surprisingly, Spanish tomatoes were first prepared in the Aztec style, sautéed in oil with chiles. Only in the nineteenth century—three hundred years after their European debut—would the Spanish add tomatoes to the already traditional gazpacho and paella.

In fact, Spain’s major sixteenth-century contribution to the tomato, other than “discovering” it, may have been confusing it with the tomatillo. The Aztecs called the tomato xitomatl and the (distantly related) tomatillo miltomatl, the root for each, tomatl, meaning “round fruit,” with prefixes to distinguish the different varieties. Unfortunately, Spanish writers of the sixteenth century picked up only the root, calling both tomate in Spanish, and that included Francisco Hernández, Spain’s most prominent physician and naturalist.

Hernández was sent by King Philip II to Mexico in 1571 to study the flora and fauna of the New World. Five years later he had compiled sixteen folio volumes detailing the plants and animals he found. Admirable work, although because of his loose nomenclature, his discussion of the tomato was accompanied by an illustration of the wrong tomate. Worse, the tomato/tomatillo error followed the vegetables to Italy (and, as you can see, nearly into English), where both vegetables became pomodoro, a mistake that bedevils scholars of one or the other to this day.

In Italy, when tomatoes were first consumed, it was by the wealthy, and as an exotic curiosity, much like adventurous eaters today might try fugu, the potentially deadly puffer fish, while visiting Japan. But among the vast majority of Europeans, tomatoes, even after they were recognized as an edible plant, were rarely eaten throughout the Renaissance—the main reason being, in fact, the Renaissance.

Oddly enough, the period of unprecedented culture and learning that pulled Europe out of the Dark Ages may have helped usher in the three-hundred-year-long dark age of the tomato. How so? Well, the spark that lit the Renaissance was the rediscovery—and fresh appreciation—of classical antiquity; that is, the culture of ancient Rome and Greece, and everything old was new again, sometimes literally: One of Michelangelo’s very earliest commissions, following his teenage years as an apprentice in the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici (a half cousin of sorts to our friend Cosimo), was such a convincing replica of an ancient Roman Cupid that it was scuffed up a bit and sold by an unscrupulous dealer as a freshly unearthed artifact. The forgery was soon uncovered (due to flaws in the aging, not in the artistry), but instead of ending Michelangelo’s career in scandal before it ever began, his ability to replicate the classical arts established the young artist as a talented sculptor. In fact, the scammed buyer, a Roman cardinal, was so impressed that, even while decrying the forgery, he hired the forger, bringing Michelangelo to Rome. The rest, as they say, is history. The intriguing question of whether Michelangelo launched his career by knowingly participating in art forgery is still a matter of debate.

At the other end of his career, Michelangelo was commissioned to redesign the square in front of Rome’s Capitoline Hill in order to provide a worthy setting for the only surviving equestrian statue of ancient Rome, a magnificent, larger-than-life bronze of Marcus Aurelius, who ruled the Roman Empire from AD 161 to 180. And, to come full circle, it was Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician, Galen of Pergamon, who may well have squashed the Renaissance tomato.

The embrace of classicism that embodied the Renaissance was by no means restricted to art and architecture. Ancient literature, science, and medicine—such as it was—were all unearthed and scoured for clues about how to live a better life. And Renaissance Italians believed there was much to learn from Galen.

Greek by birth, Galen of Pergamon was a juggernaut of a physician: Doctors Spock, Salk, and Oz all rolled into one. After settling in Rome at the age of thirty-three, he quickly rose through the ranks of Top Docs, serving as the personal physician of several emperors and inciting enough professional jealousy among his peers (of which, in fact, he believed he had none) that he lived in constant fear of being poisoned.

Galen was more than just an ambitious self-promoter, however. A physician, scientist, and philosopher, he was the first to demonstrate (by severing the appropriate nerves of a squealing pig) that the larynx generates the voice. He was the first to recognize the differences between arterial and venous blood. He discovered the distinction between sensory and motor nerves and even performed the first successful cataract surgeries.

He wrote books on pharmacology and practiced an early form of what would come to be called “psychoanalysis.” His anatomical studies—done with monkeys and pigs because dissection of human cadavers was illegal in ancient Rome—remained the standard reference works in Europe for an astounding fifteen hundred years. Without a doubt Galen possessed one of the finest minds of the Roman era. Perhaps his only flaw (other than his ego) was that he was hopelessly in the thrall of Hippocrates and the ancient Greek physician’s theory of humorism, developed back in the fourth century BC.

Humorism is the study, I should note, not of comedy, but of the “humors”—internal substances thought to regulate human health and behavior. Hippocrates had identified them as blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, writing, “Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other.” This doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary until you understand that prior to Hippocrates, all illnesses were blamed on the gods, which is one reason why Hippocrates is considered “the father of medicine.”

In the second century AD, Galen expanded upon the Hippocratic theories, drawing a connection between specific foods and humors, and between humors and personality types. If you were melancholy, it was because you had too much black bile. The sunny outlook of optimists was due to an abundance of blood. An early proponent of “You are what you eat,” Galen, who might qualify as the world’s first celebrity diet doctor, believed that by adjusting the diet you could alter both your health and your disposition.

Whether it’s the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet, or Galen’s Diet, dietary theory requires classifying foods, and Galen chose a simple two-way grid: hot or cold crossed with wet or dry. So, while some foods might be, say, hot and dry, others were cold and wet, or cold and dry. A hot-tempered Roman might be advised to eat foods classified as “cold” to correct the imbalance. Runny nose? Eat hot and dry foods to counteract that phlegm. Some foods, given their classification, were best avoided altogether.


On Sale
Jun 7, 2022
Page Count
320 pages

William Alexander

About the Author

William Alexander is a New York Times bestselling author and the writer of three  critically-acclaimed books, including The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis  in the Quest for the Perfect Garden. He's been featured on NPR's Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and has written for the New York Times, the LA Times, Saveur, and others.

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