Years ago in my research I found written evidence of tomatoes growing in Lowcountry gardens long before any mention of them in the other of the original thirteen colonies. Several culinary historians have written the history of “love apples,” as they were once called. One bright sunny day in June, when the first tomato crop in the Lowcountry was at its height, I received in the mail a copy of a page from William Salmon’s Botanologia. The English Herbal: or, The History of Plants, published in London in 1710. Karen Hess, the American culinary historian, had sent me her wonderful find: not only an entire chapter on love apples, but the following:

They grow naturally in hot Countries, as in Ethiopia, Barbary, Egypt, Syria, Spain, Italy, and other hot Countries: Some report they were first brought to us from Peru; and I have seen them grow in Carolina, which is the SouthEast part of Florida....

Carolina was then, of course, the northeastern part of Florida, but I have little doubt that tomatoes were growing here then. The Spanish and Portuguese, who had been not only explorers, but slave traders as well, had taken to the tomato early on. Sephardic Jews who had settled in the Caribbean later moved to Charleston, possibly bringing the tomato with them. And Hess herself, a stickler for documentation and historical accuracy, has lent credence to Helen Mendes’s claim in The African Heritage Cookbook that the slaves had long been cooking with tomatoes in West Africa: “If so, it would have been due to the Portuguese, who came to West Africa in the fifteenth century and had early and enthusiastically taken to the tomato.”

Whenever the tomato arrived in the Lowcountry, it was being grown for food in 1764 by Henry Laurens in his Charleston garden—overlooking the Cooper River—nearly 20 years before Thomas Jefferson, who has been credited with single-handedly importing them, mentions them. And by 1770, when Harriott Pinckney Horry (1748-1830) wrote down her recipes at her plantation north of Charleston, tomatoes were firmly established in the gardens of the area; her recipe “To Keep Tomatoos [sic] for Winter Use” has been called the earliest reference to tomatoes in American cookbooks. Harriott’s cooking surely influenced her young cousin Sarah Rutledge (born 1782), whose Carolina Housewife of 1847 is a classic of Lowcountry cuisine. Five pages of tomato recipes include the following, titled “To Keep Tomatoes the Whole Year.” If you think that sun-dried tomatoes are a trendy new Italian fad, think again: here they are, nearly 150 years ago—and in the Lowcountry! I’ve tried sun-drying tomatoes in humid Charleston: it takes three dry, hot sunny days or the tomatoes begin to mold or mildew. Cooking some of the water out of the tomatoes first is a brilliant local touch, and I prepare a bateh of these every year, drying the little cakes in a low oven.

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