Serious Reads: 'Pomodoro,' by David Gentilcore
The humble tomato figures heavily in cuisines worldwide. But no country holds the fruit so dear as Italy, whose sauces, canned products, and culinary pride depend upon tomato abundance. David Gentilcore takes us through the bumpy relationship between this cuisine and the tomato in Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy.
Originally domesticated in South America, the tomato had a roundabout route to Italy. It arrived by way of England, where it was at first reviled. Indeed, many Brits thought the fruit was poisonous, and nutritional advice commanded exclusion of the tomato from one's diet. As the tomato traveled to Italy, its negative reputation followed.
The tide began to turn in the mid-seventeenth century, when doctors began recommending increased vegetable and fruit intake as part of a healthy diet. The tomato, though bitter at the time, began to be used for canning, sauces, and jams. Soon, the most popular usage of the tomato was as tomato paste—which allowed for easy enrichment of thin sauces and otherwise flavorless dishes.
The rise of canning in the 1800s led to a canned-tomato industry that really took off. International markets developed for Italian tomato varieties, especially within the United States. A burgeoning immigrant population in the States also led to increased demand for Italian tomato products overseas. These immigrants simultaneously piqued demand for pastas and other homeland staples.
Many of the dishes we term "Italian" today were actually invented in the US, by recent immigrants. In a land where pasta and meats were available every day, Italian-Americans developed new meat sauces, lasagnas, and other modern-day staples. And of course, none of these dishes would be possible without the usage of the tomato.
I have to say, this book was pretty unsatisfying. It provided a dictionary's worth of names of important Italians, and highlighted the minutia of tomato agriculture. But I felt as though the cultural and culinary narrative of the tomato was lost in all the unnecessary dates and figures. It lacked distinction of important turning points in the tomato's history, often backtracking and jumping around in time. Neither easily readable nor academically insightful, Pomodoro is not top on my list of recommended food reads.
That being said, the tomato does have a fascinating global history that's worth exploring. Gentilcore perhaps overly restricted himself by staying within the boundaries of the fruit's Italian history. It is worth remembering that Italian cuisine as we know it in America is as much a product of immigration as tradition—and that the tomato was at the forefront of the country's culinary development, both at home and abroad.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.