Hungry History

Once-Forbidden Foods

By Laura Schumm
forbidden foods

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One of the most well-known stories from the Bible is that of Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. Although most people immediately associate that forbidden fruit with a bright and shiny red apple, the Bible never actually identified it. This entrenched misperception likely originated from a Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, in the late 4th century, in which the Hebrew word “ra” was rendered as “malum,” which means both ‘evil’ and ‘apple.’ Later, Renaissance painters reinforced this interpretation by consistently depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with an apple. Most historians now agree that the illicit fruit was not, in fact, an apple, but rather more likely a quince, pomegranate or fig. Nevertheless, the apple has persisted as a symbol of temptation and sin throughout history—and as the ultimate forbidden fruit.

Another fruit to garner a dubious reputation was the tomato. Originating in the Andes Mountains but domesticated by the Maya of Central America, tomatoes were welcomed into Spanish and Italian cooking after making their way to Europe in the early 16th century. However, their early classification by botanists within the Solanaceae, or nightshade family—of which many species are highly poisonous—made many Northern Europeans reluctant to incorporate them into their meals. In 1597, English herbalist John Gerard published “The Herball, or Generall historie of plantes” in which he described tomatoes as poisonous, despite also acknowledging that they were eaten in “hot countries” like Spain and Italy. This publication, coupled with the tomato’s striking resemblance to the deadly nightshade plant, deterred many people from immediately embracing the fruit.

In North America, tomatoes were observed within the Carolina colony as early as 1710, but the plant was still more of an ornamental curiosity grown for its beauty than for use as a culinary ingredient. It was not until the latter half of the 18th century that the tomato’s popularity increased. Yet, even after they could readily be found in recipes for soup, ketchup or relishes, a new anxiety emerged: the dreaded tomato worm. The thick, green three- to four-inch-long worm with a horn on its back infested tomato vines and was believed to be poisonous, further damaging the tomato’s already precarious stature. Fortunately, this myth was soon dispelled, along with the fear of the fruit. Today, tomatoes are considered a staple of nearly every cuisine, consumed around the world.

Potatoes, which also originated in South America, were similarly viewed with suspicion following their introduction in Spain in 1570 and subsequent spread across Europe. As is the case with tomatoes, potatoes are classified within the nightshade family, and their unsightly, misshapen appearance caused many Europeans to believe they could cause various ailments from leprosy to syphilis. In Switzerland, people posited that eating large quantities of potatoes could cause scrofula, an infection of the lymph nodes in the neck, and many German peasants were so distrustful of the tuber that they refused to eat potatoes sent to them for free by Frederick the Great during a famine in 1774. France, in particular, was so wary of potatoes that in 1619 its cultivation was banned in Burgundy. The fear of the spud permeated French society until Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who was captured by Prussians during the Seven Years’ War and forced to subsist—surprisingly in good health—on potatoes, managed to convince his fellow countrymen otherwise after writing a treatise on the spud’s benefits in 1771. Over time, potatoes were celebrated for their unusually high yield, ability to grow in various climates, and exceptional nutritional value. Today, they are one of the most important food crops in the world in terms of human consumption.

Categories: Fruit, Superstition, Vegetables