Members of the Solanaceae family are found throughout the world. Their flowers are generally simple trumpets, but with a large range in size and color. Alkaloids are present in most of these species, which makes them varyingly delicious, allergenic, hallucinogenic and toxic. The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is a member of the family that has been viewed as nearly all of the above (not hallucinogenic) at one time or another. The center of diversity—and perhaps the point of origin—for the family is the Amazon basin of South America. Two of the more important foodstuffs of Europe, the tomato and the potato (Solanum tuberosum)— had to wait for the Age of Exploration to be brought back to the Old World and integrated into European cuisines. Similarly the eggplant or aubergine (Solanum melongena) originated in the Indian subcontinent, but is now firmly entrenched in many classic European dishes.
The first description of the tomato in European literature was by botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544; he called it the pomo d’oro (“golden apple”), which has since become the name for countless Italian restaurants. As the name suggests, the earliest cultivated tomatoes were yellow. It is not known which European explorer brought them back from the New World, although archaeological evidence shows them to have been domesticated and in widespread use from their point of origin in the highlands of Peru to the heart of Aztec Mexico. The name “tomato” is derived from tomatl from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.
Tomatoes were initially viewed with suspicion in much of Europe, in part because their resemblance to (because of their relation to) belladonna or “deadly nightshade” (Atropa belladonna), which is native to Europe and either toxic or hallucinogenic, depending on the dosage and your attitude. Early tomato fruits much more closely resembled the round berries of the belladonna. The Spanish referred to the New World import at pome dei Moro (Moor’s apple), apparently lumping it with all things exotic, and the French initially called it pomme d’amour (love apple), which is probably a misunderstanding of the Spanish, rather than anything to do with affection.
Tomatoes were grown as ornamentals in northern Europe for many years before anyone convinced the Europeans or Scandinavians to actually eat them. It was as ornamentals that they traveled to the British North American colonies, although, ever the man of the Continent, Thomas Jefferson is recorded to have been eating them in the 1780s. In the 18th and 19th centuries they were available in green, yellow, orange and red varieties, which may have been more of an attraction as an ornamental than their rather small yellow flowers.
Potato flowers are showier and come in a variety of colors, but they were not grown as ornamentals like tomatoes. They did, however, face the same sort of discrimination in northern Europe as their South American cousins. Introduced to Europe in 1536, the potato was brought all over the world by European traders, perhaps because its good long-term storage qualities made useful as a shipboard culinary item. In any case, it was known throughout south Asia by the end of the 17th century.
The number of potato varieties if anything outstrips that of the tomato: 5000 worldwide, with 3000 of them in Andes, where it was an historic staple of the Inca diet. The Quechua word papa (potato) was combined with the Taino word batata (sweet potato) to created the Spanish word patata, which found general use in English. The French, who seem to view many round objects as a variety of apple, call them pomme d’terre, “apples of the earth”.
In German and Danish cooking, where potatoes are a staple, it is called kartoffel, which oddly enough, is derived from archaic Italian tartufoli for their odd resemblance to truffles (Italian tartufo), a subterranean fungus of the genus Tuber.
Potatoes are, of course, a nearly ubiquitous feature of Thanksgiving feasts. A few years ago when my wife and I decided to introduce the Thanksgiving meal to some open-minded Danes, we hauled the uniquely North American components—pumpkins (canned), cranberries (fresh) and pecans—along with us on the plane. Turkey is reasonably popular in much of Europe, so that wasn’t a problem, and we assumed that the universal presence of potatoes would make transporting them to Denmark unnecessary.
As it turns out, Danes don’t mash potatoes. Their supermarkets were full of finger potatoes, small narrow varieties with an enormous amount of starch in them. When we attempted to make the traditional mashed potato dish with them, it turned into something that more nearly resembled North American potatoes mixed with wallpapering paste. Happily, the Danes didn’t know any better and were intrigued by any departure from simply cutting them up, boiling them and eating them.