- Europeans in the 1700s thought tomatoes were poisonous, believing them to be related to deadly nightshade.
- Pineapples, which are native to the tropics, used to be so costly to ship that they were seen as status symbols in many European courts.
- Oranges might explain a number of fruit related myths.
- Figs are (probably) the oldest cultivated fruit in history.
- The Endicott Pear Tree is the oldest fruit bearing tree in North America
- “Fruity” was once an insult against queer men because the term implied that LGBTQ+ people were mentally ill.
We don’t normally look at food and think of what deeper stories they may have to tell. In the rare instances that fruit gets overanalyzed, we just think about labor practices, global warming, food ethics, or something along those lines. But food’s rich history has more to it than just bleak doomsday tales. Food’s close ties to daily life have made it an ingrained aspect of many cultures, interweaving it with many languages, societal norms, and myths.
People Thought Tomatoes Were Poisounous
Where would we be without tomatoes? These juicy fruits (yes, they are actually fruits and not vegetables) show up in many beloved dishes. Think spaghetti and lasagna. But this cornerstone of Italian cuisine isn’t native to Europe. Tomatoes originated in the New World and were brought back by colonizers to their home countries where they were confused with their poisonous cousins.
The tomato, or tomatl as it was known to the Aztecs, is part of the Solanaceae family of plants which includes deadly nightshade. But if the tomato had previously been cultivated by the Aztecs, why didn’t Europeans try to eat it?
It wasn’t that they didn’t try the new fruit, but that the wealthy Europeans who ate the tomatoes did so on pewter plates.
At the time, tomatoes were rare imported commodities that weren’t accessible to your average peasant. The only people eating tomatoes were doing it on fancy plates that had high lead content.
Tomatoes got the blame because their acid content was high enough to bring the lead out of the plate and into the mouths of unsuspecting nobles. In a way, this misconceived fear of tomatoes kept them safe, but it just goes to show that correlation does not equal causation.
That said, if you’re ever out camping and you come across cherry tomato lookalikes, do not touch them. The tomato has many deadly cousins out in the wild. Stick to the cultivated ones.
Pineapples Were Once the Balenciagas of the French Royal Court
Want to let everyone know how rich you are (or at least, give the impression of it) on social media? How about posting photos of sliced fresh pineapples?
iPhones, Hermes handbags, and Balenciaga kicks may be the status symbols of the 21st century, but back in the 1700s, pineapples were the way to go if you wanted to flex on all your fellow nobles.
Just like the tomato, pineapples are a New World fruit. It’s a native of Brazil but was also easily found throughout the tropics thanks to the movement of indigenous peoples and trade. When the Spanish came across this deliciously sweet yet sour fruit, they tried to bring it back to Spain.
However, perishable goods aren’t fans of several months-long sea voyages, especially in a time before refrigeration. By the time Columbus got back to Spain, he only had one pineapple left to present to King Ferdinand.
Stop for a moment here and think about why it’s so easy to buy things off of Aliexpress, despite it coming from a country on the other side of the globe. Modern sea transport is extremely cheap for companies moving thousands of goods per ship. Add to that the prolonging gift of refrigeration and you start to understand why we have every fruit and vegetable available in supermarkets even when they’re not in season.
None of that was around when pineapples were being shipped to Europe. This made them incredibly rare and expensive — the key traits of any luxury item. Soon, the pineapple became so popular that pineapple rental services were established to allow several uppity nobles to show off that they had pineapple money to their dinner guests. The fruit was hailed as the king or queen of fruit, maybe because you had to be one yourself to have a steady supply of them.
But as the French Revolution showed us, all reigns come to an end. A combination of cheaper shipping prices, thanks to the steamship, and the feasibility of growing pineapples in greenhouses made the fruit drop in value faster than you could say Squid Game crypto.
The Golden Apples of Hesperides May Have Been Oranges
Many fruits that weren’t native to Europe are suspected of being the real story behind many golden apple myths. The tomato is one of them, as evidenced by its Italian name, pomi d’oro, meaning “golden apples” and the fact that its original version was yellow, rather than red. Another suspect is the quince, the non-showbiz cousin of apples and pears.
Whichever one it is, the common theme is that the fruit is always yellow or orange and is not easily found in Europe, giving it an air of exoticness and mysticism.
My favorite version of the story is that oranges are the golden apples of Greek mythology. Oranges first showed up in what is now southeast China. The fruit, which is a hybrid between pomelos and mandarins, was brought to the Iberian peninsula by Moorish invaders who settled in Al-Andalus. This is where things get more magical: the Garden of Hesperides, where Hera’s golden apples were grown, was located in Lixus, Morocco.
At least, that’s what Pliny the Elder says. Estimates put the real-world inspiration for the garden somewhere near the Atlas mountains of North Africa. In the mythological version, the garden of Hesperides’s golden apples of wisdom were guarded by a great dragon and tended by beautiful nymphs.
Today, there are no nymphs or dragons to be seen. Lixus is all ruins, no orange trees. But stories have a way of outliving their real-life counterparts. Today, the orange is entrenched in language.
The orange was brought over to Europe several times and one of the other groups to bring them were Portuguese traders. To the people who traded with the Portuguese and ate the sweet, golden fruit they sold, the oranges were from Portugal.
In Turkish, orange is portakal while in Greek, it’s πορτοκάλι meaning portukali. Other names for the orange refer to its Chinese origins, as in the Dutch sinaasapel meaning Chinese apple or is derived from the Sanskrit नारंग meaning narang or, as it’s called in Spanish, naranja.
The cultural and mythological ties of the orange are admittedly blurry, as is the nature of these things. But when you slice an orange, you’re digging into centuries of linguistics, mythology, and economics.
Figs Are One of the Most Mentioned Fruits in the Bible and It Might Be the Oldest Cultivated Fruit
If you like your fruit with a Biblical taste, the fig is the one for you. This constant fixture of charcuterie boards posted on Pinterest has been around as far back as 11,400 years ago, making them the oldest known cultivated fruit. Note the word “known”.
Archaeologists have found evidence of fig consumption in the ruins of a village near Jericho, one of the oldest cities in history. It’s so old that Jericho shows up several times in the Bible, along with figs. There are actually 48 Bible verses that talk about figs, making them one of the most mentioned food items in the book. It’s up there with obvious ones like olives, wine, bread, fish, dates, and wheat.
In Mark 11:12-14, Jesus curses the fig tree in a moment of what we now know today as hangriness. The verse goes, “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.”
Fortunately for us, figs are still widely consumed and planted. California is the leading fig producer in the U.S. and makes 98% of all the country’s figs. U.S. fig exports are valued at over $10.6 million.
When figs aren’t getting exported, they’re getting imported to fill demand during off-season months. Huh, when Jesus comes back, we should tell him about global supply chains and supermarkets.
But the Oldest Fruit Bearing Tree in North America Is a Pear Tree
Let’s just say it: the white part of North American history is very young. There are houses and pubs in Europe and inns in East Asia that are older than either the U.S. or Canada. But young doesn’t mean there’s zero historical significance to be found. An often overlooked part of U.S. history is what the oldest fruit-bearing tree in North America is.
The Endicott pear tree, named after John Endecott or Endicott, depending on who you ask, was planted sometime between 1630 and 1649. Endecott had come to Salem, Massachusetts from England and became governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. And, yes, he was one of those overzealous Puritans.
The guy had a serious green thumb, though, and his pear tree would go on to survive everything from hurricanes to vandals hacking it down to just a 6-foot tall stump. If there was ever any black magic performed in Salem, it was definitely done when this tree was planted.
So Why Is Fruity Slang for Queer?
Have you ever looked at someone and thought to yourself that they seem kind of fruity? For the ones who don’t know, “fruity” is a way of saying that someone appears to be, ahem, less than straight.
While the term has gotten more prevalent in the past couple of years, disseminated mostly through the internet, its origins are rooted in 19th century England. The term began as a way for queer men to refer to themselves, especially if they have more stereotypically feminine traits and habits.
When the word went mainstream for the first time, people figured out what it meant and began to use it as an insult because of course the homophobes don’t want queers to have nice things.
By the 1950s, the term “fruity” developed a variant, “fruitcake” as in “nutty as a fruitcake.” This is because the American Psychological Association had added homosexuality to its manual of disorders as a form of “sociopathic personality disturbance,” giving rise to the myth that queerness is curable in gay torture camps, a.k.a gay conversion therapy.
Right now, fruity is enjoying a reclamation era and is being freely used by many young queers together with fruit emojis. 🍋🍒🍍.