History Stories

Before the advent of modern science, perfectly edible fruits, vegetables and herbs were deemed unfit for human consumption. The most famous example is the tomato, a plant native to South America that found its way into Spanish and Italian cuisine by the late 1600s century but was only grown ornamentally in Britain and the American colonies until the 1800s. In 17th-century England, meanwhile, potatoes allegedly carried leprosy and “cowcumbers” could spell death for all but the bovine creatures that gave them their derisive name. While these myths have long been dispelled, a series of E. coli outbreaks in the last few decades have shown that produce can indeed be perilous. Find out more about the rocky history of some of today’s favorite fruits and vegetables.

Native to South America and brought to Europe by Spanish colonists in the early 16th century, tomatoes had found their way into Spanish and Italian cuisine by the late 1600s. In Britain and the American colonies, however, the plant was only grown ornamentally and its abundant red fruits were considered poisonous—despite the fact that prominent figures, including Thomas Jefferson, publicly relished them. The myth of the poisonous tomato seems to have been dispelled by the end of the 18th century.

First cultivated by the Romans, strawberries fell out of favor in parts of 12th-century Europe after Saint Hildegard von Bingen of Germany pronounced them unsafe to eat because they grew on the ground. Their reputation was restored by the Swedish botanist Charles Linnaeus, who prescribed himself a diet of nothing but strawberries as a treatment for rheumatic gout in the 1700s.

Brought from Peru by the Spanish conquistadors, potatoes were first planted in various countries across Europe and in the American colonies during the 16th century. Their popularity was impeded by superstitions that persisted until the 1800s, including that potatoes caused illness, shortened people’s lives and carried leprosy. This may be because cooks unfamiliar with the tuber attempted to serve the stems and leaves of the potato plant, which are indeed toxic to humans.

Believed to be native to India, cucumbers became popular in Rome and China during ancient times and had spread to North America by the mid-16th century. At some point during the following decade, however, British and American consumers developed a temporary aversion to raw produce in general and to the cucumber—known then as the cowcumber, possibly because it was deemed only fit for bovine consumption—in particular. In September 1663, the English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, “This day Sir W. Batten tells me that Mr. Newhouse is dead of eating cowcumbers, of which the other day I heard of another, I think.”

The safety of cucumbers came into question again in mid-May 2011, when Germans began falling ill with a rare form of the bacterium E. coli. An estimated 15 people died from a severe complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Discovered in 1885, the bacterium Escherichia coli was first recognized as a public health problem following a 1982 outbreak in the United States triggered by contaminated hamburgers. Since then, hundreds of outbreaks have been reported around the world, causing officials to launch awareness campaigns, restaurants to shut down and meatpackers and food growers to recall their products. While symptoms of infection usually improve within several days, certain rare E. coli strains can lead to life-threatening diseases such as HUS, an acute condition with a 3 to 5 percent fatality rate.

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