In the 1960s, cherry tomatoes were nearly impossible to find in the grocery store. By the 1990s, it was hard to get a salad without them. Somehow, within a couple of decades, the tiny tomatoes had taken over. Where did they come from? And who lay behind their sudden rise to glory?
A few years ago, Anna Wexler, a freelance science writer based in Israel, was waiting to board a flight out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport when her eye was caught by a pamphlet titled "Explaining Israel." Available in both Hebrew and English, the brochure was designed to provide Israelis with positive talking points to boost the country’s reputation overseas. Alongside tips on how to engage listeners (humor and concision were advised), the government encouraged its citizens to discuss the country's technological prowess by providing a handy list of Israeli inventions. There, alongside drip irrigation and the Epilady (a torturous hair removal device), was the cherry tomato.
Wexler knew that tomatoes originated in the Americas (in fact, the tomato’s wild ancestors hail from Peru and Ecuador), and she wondered whether Israel’s claims could be true. She documented her quest to discover the origins of the cherry tomato in an article, “Seeding Controversy: Did Israel Invent the Cherry Tomato?” published this month in the journal Gastronomica.
In this episode of Gastropod, we follow Wexler down the rabbit hole, in a story that ranges from pre-conquest Mexico to Renaissance Europe, and from Richard Nixon's newly married daughter to an icon of the British high street, Marks & Spencer. Join us on this culinary detective story, as we trace the cherry tomato's dramatic rise to global success—and get to the bottom of its mysterious origins. Who invented the cherry tomato? Listen in to find out.
Anna Wexler is the author of “Seeding Controversy: Did Israel Invent the Cherry Tomato?”, published in the Summer 2016 issue of Gastronomica. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the HASTS (History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society) Program at MIT. She also co-directed, co-produced, co-edited, and co-wrote the feature documentary film "Unorthodox" (2013).
Bernard Sparkes recently stepped down as chairman of the British Tomato Growers' Association, following five decades in the tomato business. In the 1970s, he was responsible for the clonal selection of Gardener's Delight, a cherry tomato variety originally developed in East Germany, resulting in GD41, a commercial cherry tomato that made its debut at Marks & Spencer's in the early 1980s.