The tomato is a fruit of many colors, shapes and names, and summer is the time to revel in its heady acidic sweetness. Though greenhouse tomatoes are available year round, a tomato in winter is but a pale imitation of robust fruit grown in healthy soil under the hot summer sun.
Tiny wild tomatoes were native to South and Central America and were first cultivated by the Inca and Aztec peoples around 700 CE. The Aztecs learned to breed large flavorful specimens which they called "tomatl" meaning "fat fruit" or "plump fruit" and "xitomatl" meaning "plump fruit with a navel" in the Nahau language.
Spanish explorers introduced the fruit which they called "tomate" to Europe in the sixteenth century; eventually it gained extensive culinary use throughout the continent and beyond. The Italians named it "pomodoro" or "golden apple" and the French call it "pomme d'amour", "apple of love". In Russia, home of the famous heirloom Black Krim, the fruit is called "pomidor".
Known botanically as Solanum lycopersicum, tomatoes belong to the large family Solanaceae which includes potatoes, eggplants, peppers and tobacco. The etymological roots of Solanaceae are unclear, but Lycopersicum as translated from Greek means "wolf peach", "lyco" meaning "wolf" and "persikon" meaning "peach". The "wolf peach" name may stem from early European folklore involving witchcraft and werewolves. Tomatoes were long thought to be poisonous since they belong to the nightshade family, which includes some deadly varieties.
Far from being poisonous, tomatoes are dense with valuable nutrients, especially lycopene, a powerful antioxidant which gives tomatoes their deep color and is thought to offer protection from several types of cancer and coronary artery disease. Tomatoes also contain plentiful amounts of vitamin C, potassium and fiber, and a 100 gram serving provides nearly a gram of protein.