Tomatoes are another one of those plants that everyone thinks is European in origin, mais non! In fact, tomatoes are native to Mesoamerica, specifically Mexico, and were used widely across South and Central America before the Spanish and their conquering ways showed up. The Spanish brought the plants back to Europe, and probably also to their colonies in the Caribbean. These nightshade plants also cropped up in the American South, mostly along the Atlantic Coast and Mississippi Delta.
Tomatoes were grown across the American South pre-Civil War - even Thomas Jefferson took a liking to the fragrant plant. While T.J. was bold enough to eat tomato fruits, many Americans were too afraid to and mostly used the plants for fragrant decoration. But the Geechee, Gullah, Creoles, and Cajuns and others embraced tomatoes and found delicious ways to incorporate their unique sweetness into some of the South's most iconic dishes. In fact, tomato culture started to spread before 1830, with South Carolina known to export North and West around that time. Those tomato fruits were based on mostly wild varietals that had been cultivated and came in all shapes and colors - thus decidedly seasonal and local. Alexander Livingston is the first known seed-monger to upgrade tomato seeds and develop different breeds, eventually jump-starting the U.S. commercial tomato market.
In addition to Livingston's enterprise, other things happened in the late 19th century that totally flipped the script for tomatoes. First, tomatoes stopped being viewed as a "seasonal" treat with the advent of canning. Folks could enjoy tomatoes year-round, as well as get fresh fruits almost year round from South America (which squeezed the South Carolina market.) Secondly, consumers started caring more about the physical appearance of tomatoes instead of taste. No one wanted 'real' tomatoes, which were multi-colored and misshapen - they wanted uniformly red, round and smooth fruits.
What made tomatoes increasingly popular was not just the look of the fruit but also its health benefits, which were promoted as early as the 1820s. Despite the fact that most tomatoes you buy in the big box stores are round and red but somewhat flavorless and mealy, they still boast high levels of lycopene, which has been linked to reduced heart disease and cancer (tomatoes are a staple in Mediterranean diets). Tomatoes are also high in Vitamin C and K, folate, and potassium.
Which is all great, but what about the taste? Luckily, this is one area where the whole heirloom seed movement has got it so right, because you can now find all sort of bumpy, multicolored, somewhat ugly, and super fragrant tomatoes in the stores now. Plus, folks are trading and sharing seeds again, so you can plant and grow your own -and there is nothing compared to eating a tomato right off the vine.
This is absolutely the best time of year for fresh North America tomatoes. They are seasonal, which means if you head to your local market they come from closer by and are not the overly engineered variety, Even better, head to your local farmers market for the really good stuff. Chances are you will catch the floating sweet fragrance of really good tomatoes before you even the stand that holds them.
References: Southern Provisions by David S. Shields, The University of Chicago Press, 2015; The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery by Andrew Smith, University of South Carolina Press, 1994.