It may seem impossible to ascertain what fish sauce, cardboard and volcanoes have in common, but as Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World: A History reveals, the answer is, well . . . tomatoes.
Author William Alexander takes readers on a world tour through history, from the tomato’s regional origins in Mexico to its ubiquity in the present day. (Thanks to pizza, the tomato is now the most famous fruit in the world.) Much of each chapter relies on historical research, even as Alexander frequently questions the veracity of what he uncovered during said research; after all, everyone wants to be celebrated for having invented some of the world’s favorite foods. But Ten Tomatoes is also a travelogue of sorts, as Alexander visits important locations from the tomato’s history, especially Italy, and enjoys many culinary experiences firsthand.
Alexander’s playful sense of humor—perhaps best described as “dad jokes about vegetables”—makes Ten Tomatoes a delight to read. It’s this humor that takes a range of disparate and unexpected topics, such as legends about who first brought tomatoes to North America and rumors that circulated during the 1800s cholera epidemic, and makes them equally digestible. (Yes, that was a tomato pun.)
However, Ten Tomatoes isn’t just filled with tidbits that will help readers dominate at pub trivia night (especially if “pasta” or “ketchup” are categories). More broadly, the book proves that food history isn’t a niche topic. Through entertaining stories and fun facts, Alexander shows how culinary decisions have often been made based on the politics or business interests of the day, rather than anything to do with flavor or health. Taken all together, this book about the history of this beloved fruit (or vegetable—it’s debatable!) is endlessly surprising.