It is impossible to write about tomatoes without mentioning the name of Michele Felice Corne , who in the 19th century lived in Newport for 23 years, achieved some artistic fame earlier in life, in Massachusetts, but he would never go down in history as a great painter. He would, however, achieve a footnote of distinction in American gastronomy. Born to a noble family on the island of Elba, in 1752, Corne was drafted by the Neapolitan army to help repel the brief French occupation of Naples in 1799.
He rose to the rank of captain, but soon became disgusted with war and sought deliverance on the ship Mount Vernon, bound for Salem, Massachusetts. He quickly became involved with the high society circle, and his artistic work widely appreciated by the local bureaucracy. He also worked in his garden as a pastime and particularly enjoyed his daily macaroni, Catalonia wine - and, in season, his favorite food: tomatoes.
Corne must have been astounded when he arrived in this country to see the red fruit - eaten in Europe since the 16th century - prized here for its beauty, but not its taste. Although the tomato sprang from the New World, in the United States the "love apple" was considered poisonous. People believed that to eat this member of the deadly-nightshade family was to exhibit love sickness - madness. In fact, anyone eating the tomato was thought to be suicidal. Thomas Jefferson, in Virginia, is said to have eaten tomatoes, and tomatoes were used in cooking in South Carolina in the late eighteenth century and in Creole New Orleans in the early 19th.
Nevertheless, it took Michele Corne to change the fruit's reputation. "Corne, moved to Newport, Rhode Island in 1822 with his friend Billy Bottomore. Corne not only ate tomatoes, while in Newport but, wherever he went, he spoke of their delights. "There is that potato," the Italian once said. "He grows in the dark, or in the damp cellar with his pale, lank roots; he has no flavor; he lives underground.”But the tomato: he grows in the sunshine; he has a fine rosy color, an exquisite flavor; he is wholesome; and when he is put in the soup, you relish him and leave nothing in the plate]" This popular love for the tomato created some mistrust among locals, and soon after he was accused of being insane do primarily for the indulgence of the fruit he so much adored. In the summer of 1831 Michele Felice Corne took a bagful of tomatoes and consumed the entire amount before an incredulous public in a courtroom of Newport. Mr. Corne died on July 10, 1845, at the age of 93.
His grave, in Newport's Old Cemetery, is marked with a granite obelisk. Unfortunately, much of his art no longer exists, except some examples in the Peabody Museum, but the corner of Corne and Mills Street in Newport is still there, where maybe the first triumph of the golden apple occurred. But while New Englanders began accepting the tomato, in Italy, it was pasta that was getting all the attention and virtually from the moment it was combined with the tomato, became popular as well as fashionable. Consumption spread rapidly throughout society and serving pasta with tomato at formal as well as every day, meals was a sign of distinction. However, the addition of sauce made pasta a messy dish to eat with the fingers, the common way of eating it until then, and an instrument that was as curious as it had been neglected until that time, the fork, soon began to appear on the tables of the middle class. That implement had been around in various forms for several centuries and had filled various functions at the tables of refined and snobbish households throughout Europe.