The Contentious History of the Cherry Tomato

The salad topper has a long and fraught history

cherry tomatoes via Flickr

For decades, the cherry tomato has been a staple of summer salads and other dishes. But the tiny, sweet treat wasn’t always a standard in side dishes. Indeed, it didn't become a popular feature in Western meals until the 1980s. As it turns out, though, the little cherry tomato has had a curious history that intertwines commercialism, nationalism and, of course, the search for the best flavor, co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley report for "Gastropod", a podcast that explores the science and history behind food.

To understand the bite-size snack, it is important to go back to the very beginnings of the tomato as a domesticated crop. While the wild tomato may have originated in the Andes in South America, according to the British Tomato Growers’ Association, it was cultivated by the Incas and Aztecs in Mexico sometime around 700 A.D. In fact, the word “tomato” is derived from the Aztec word “tomatl”. While the first tomatoes were tiny, pea-sized plant that grew in wild clusters like grapes, Central American growers transformed them into something quite different.

“By the time the Spaniards got there, the Mexicans were eating tomatoes of all kinds of sizes and colors and shapes,” Arthur Allen, a health editor at Politico, tells Graber and Twilley.

It’s unclear who brought the first tomatoes across the Atlantic, but the first description of small tomatoes appear in a book by Gaspard Bauhin called Pinax Theatri Botanici, or Illustrated Exposition of Plants ​published in 1623, Anna Wexler writes for the journal Gastronomica.

“The fact that he described one specific kind as ‘clusters in the form of cherries’ seems to point to the fact that cherry tomatoes did exist in the mid-early 1600s,” Wexler tells Graber and Twilley.

From there, the cherry tomato’s history gets a bit convoluted. While the Greek island of Santorini has long claimed that the cherry tomato was first bred on its shores (in 2013, the executive body of the European Union​ gave Greece's “Tomataki Santorini” breed protected status), researchers have found that the breed's small size has more to do with the nutrient-poor volcanic soil and dry climate.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government has claimed for decades that Israeli growers invented the cherry tomato. However, the cherry tomato, as we know it today, became popular before Israeli scientists figured out how to breed a variety that could be packed, shipped, and sold before they spoiled, Wexler writes. Still, as it turns out, Israel’s claim is half-right.

While the cherry tomato has been around in one way or another for centuries, its commercialization and popularization is thanks to Marks & Spencer, a British chain that combines grocery markets with clothing stores. During the 1970s, its owner was trying to figure out how to find a commercialized tomato that tasted good. At the time, cherry tomatoes were more used as a garnish than they were eaten, but he thought they might make for a good product, Graber and Twilley report. So, he reached out to his local growers as well as Israeli food scientists to develop a new, shelf-stable cherry tomato that would be sweeter than the standard ones found in supermarkets.

A British grower named Bernard Sparkes began experimenting with a variety of cherry tomato called the “Gardener’s Delight” to try and produce a commercial breed of cherry tomato, while Israeli scientists bred the seeds to grow in uniform rows and last longer on shelves. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer began selling cherry tomatoes in its produce section, kicking off a worldwide craze for the flavorful little tomatoes, Wexler says.

Farmers, scientists, politicians and historians will continue to fight over who grew the first cherry tomato. But its evolution is far from over—as the living, cultivated plants are constantly being refined and bred for new traits, it is fair to say that this tasty salad topper is still advancing.

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