Every time I go to an Italian restaurant, without fail, I get chicken parmigiana. For me, it is the ultimate way to test whether or not a place is good. The chicken needs to be perfectly breaded and cooked, and it must come with a side of pasta, cooked al dente. The part that makes or breaks a truly delicious chicken parmigiana, though, is the tomato sauce.

Black Frying Pan With Spaghetti Sauce Near Brown Wooden Ladle and Ripe Tomatoes · Free Stock Photo

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The sauce is the base for every Italian American’s diet, and it is what most are the pickiest about. Whenever my family get restaurant recommendations from friends, the first question we ask is, “How is the sauce?” We even have a list of restaurants that we won’t go back to, simply because of the sauce. 

Even The Godfather has a whole tomato sauce recipe and how-to video embedded into it.  Frank Pepe's original pie is just tomato sauce (and some grated cheese). There is even an New Haven style pizza place in Bristol, CT, called Chunk Tomato, which prides itself on the different style tomato sauce they use. 

But the odd part is, tomatoes are inherently not Italian.

From where did tomatoes originate?

RIGHT?! I was as shocked as you. Tomatoes originated with the indigenous people of Mexico.

To be more specific, when Hernán Cortés captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, he took their tomato seeds and brought them back to Spain, where tomatoes grew exponentially in the Mediterranean climate. Throughout the following years, tomatoes spread throughout Europe and then around the world. 

The earliest mention of them in Italy was in 1548, over 20 years after Cortés’ encounter with the fruit. The funniest part was that it was not until the late 18th century that Italians actually started to use tomatoes in their cooking. Before that, these "Golden Apples" were only used as centerpieces for dinner tables. 

Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable?


Let me explain. Scientifically speaking, tomatoes are fruits because they are “developed from the ovary in the base of the flower, and contain the seeds of the plant”. 

On the other hand, in culinary terms, they are considered vegetables because of the lower sugar content, making them more savory than sweet.     

Were they always red?

Cherry Tomatoes · Free Stock Photo

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I think the most fascinating part though is that they were not always red.

When our ancestors ate their first tomato, it most likely had a large yellow ring surrounding the stem. It probably looked like the kind of tomato that most Americans would throw back into the pile at Stop & Shop.

In Italian, they were called Pomodoro or Pomo d'oro, which translates literally to "golden apple". But thanks to modern genetics, we are able to cross-breed the fruit to produce tomatoes with the mutant “U” phenotype. Now, all of the tomatoes that we breed have a “U”niversal bright red color.   

But that is not all! Scientists actually modified that U mutant to make more carbohydrates and carotenoids. In other words, that means a tastier fruit. However, thanks to government regulations, no one could eat the so-called “tastier fruit” to determine if it was actually better, so we can only assume that it was.

See, aren't you glad you took MCB 2400/2410 now? 

So, next time you sit down to order your chicken parmigiana, or debate about whether Geno's Grille has good tomato sauce, remember that tomatoes were not always Italian, that they were stolen from the Aztecs, and spread by the Spanish, only to be used as a decoration by the Italians.

What a world we live in.