Following a Hunch about Tomatoes by Andrew F. Smith

Andrew F. Smith is a freelance writer who teaches culinary history and professional food writing at the New School in Manhattan. He is the author of many books, including The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery, Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, and The Turkey: An American Story, and is the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America.


In 1982 I ran across an intriguing story about how Robert Gibbon Johnson ate the first tomato in America on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey, in 1820. Thousands of people showed up to watch him perform this daring deed in the horrified expectation that he would drop dead with his first bite into the poisonous love apple. Of course, he didn’t die, and thus began America’s love affair with the tomato, or so the story went. This sounded bizarre, but much to my surprise, I located many similar accounts in encyclopedias, books, academic journals and prominent magazines, such as Scientific American. While details varied, they all had one thing in common: none offered any primary source evidence.

I can’t say why I decided to explore this story—I just had a hunch that there was a story behind the story. So for the next several weekends I visited Salem, where I examined old newspapers, books written about Salem in the nineteenth century, hundreds of articles in magazines and agricultural journals, memoirs, letters, and other primary source material. Robert Gibbon Johnson was, in fact, a prominent Salemite, and much had been written about him. Unfortunately, I found no evidence that any such tomato incident ever occurred.

What do you do when you’ve spent days researching an incident that likely didn’t happen? Well, you write an article about how fakelore became national lore through repetition by otherwise intelligent people. New Jersey History accepted the piece—after editing out the fact that they themselves had published versions of the Johnson and the tomato story—and my career as a writer commenced. The story later became the preface in my first book, The Tomato in America, the paperback edition of which was later published by the University of Illinois Press.

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