The history of 10 common foods: vanilla, chili peppers, potato…

vanilla bean orchid
Vanilla beans - photo courtesy of

In 1000 AD, Europe was in the throes of the “Dark Ages” — the time before the fork. Asian cultures fared somewhat better. Hundreds of years passed without significant change to the world’s collective culinary palate — with the possible exceptions of Ethiopian coffee becoming the rage in Arabia, and Chinese tea being introduced in Japan. Then midway through the millennium, Europeans explorers stunned taste buds around the world by discovering — and subsequently sharing — brave new flavors. Among them were the following ten everyday ingredients. Can you imagine a world without…


Sliced or diced, baked or stuffed, the lowly spud is one of nature’s most versatile products, and currently second to wheat in world production. This starchy tuber, native to the Peruvian Andes, was brought to Europe in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors. European governments had to wage campaigns to get their populations to grow and eat the potato, which, as a member of the same family as poisonous nightshade, was looked upon with suspicion. But once proven safe, the potato became universally popular and left its mark on cuisines around the world. Easy to freeze, store, dehydrate, boil, bake, or fry, potatoes are packed with minerals, but not calories. Plus, this vegetable is an all day affair: hash browns in the morning, chips or potato salad at lunch, and baked potatoes for dinner. Now the colorful varieties consumed thousands of years ago by the Incas have found their way to our grocery shelves.

The outstanding achievement of the potato is the ubiquitous French fry which, in the States, requires ketchup, a condiment made from the second pick…


Another New Worlder and also native to South America’s Andean regions, the tomato was first brought back to Europe as an ornamental plant since it too was commonly believed to be poisonous. (Like the potato, tomatoes are members of the nightshade family.) By the 16th century, Spanish cooks experimented with sauces created with tomatoes, and Italians introduced the pizza al pomidoro (with tomatoes). Tomatoes didn’t gain popularity in the United States until 1820 when the president of a New Jersey horticultural society stood in front of a skeptical crowd and ate a tomato, disproving they were poisonous. Even after this voracious display, though, tomato eaters didn’t storm the world. But today, these red/green/yellow/orange goodies are one of the world’s most popular “vegetables” (although a fruit, the US government officially designated the tomato a vegetable in 1893, for trade purposes). Recently sun-dried tomatoes have become widespread, but fresh and canned tomatoes remain the most popular. Tomatoes provide the base for many soups, condiments, and sauces, including marinara. Used on…


Before Italians Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus searched for new Eastern trade routes, spaghetti marinara — one of the world’s most popular dishes — did not exist. Legend says Polo returned to Venice with noodles from China, where they had been made for thousands of years. Two hundred years later Columbus brought back the tomato, and the rest is culinary history. In fact, the Italian contribution to international cuisine during the past 1000 years has been more significant than any other cuisine. During the High Renaissance, cooking in Italy evolved into an art form and creative chefs utilized and fused into their culinary repertoire foods discovered throughout the world. Like…


Thai and Szechuan dishes without the spiciness of peppers? They were — heat was added after the “discovery” of the chili pepper by Columbus. Now African, Indian, Spanish, Italian, Asian, as well as South American and Mexican cuisines use these pungent pepper pods. Peppers are available in over 200 varieties and the by-products, such as dried red pepper flakes and Tabasco, are commonly found in kitchens throughout the world.


For thousands of years, snow had been used in China’s mountainous regions to make ice cream, but the process of freezing cream, or milk, with ice and salt arrived in Europe via India and Persia. Italy first produced ice cream (gelato) during the 17th century. Ice cream appeared in the United States during the early 18th century and United States ice-cream manufacturing industry began in 1851. It’s no fluke that Ben & Jerry’s was established in Vermont. New England creameries make the best American ice cream. America’s most popular flavor of ice cream is…


This common flavoring is anything but plain. Having discovered vanilla heightens the taste of chocolate, the clever Aztecs cultivated the orchid vanilla planifolia and processed the bean pod from this plant. Until French naturalist Charles Morren discovered a way in 1836 to hand pollinate the bloom, vanilla was dependent on a native Mexican bee and could only be grown in Mexico. But chalk the second most popular ice cream flavor up to…


The word “chocolate” is from the Aztec word xocolatl. Chocolate was brought to Europe by the Spaniards, who learned its use from the Aztecs. Believing chocolate was an aphrodisiac, Aztec King Montezuma reportedly drank 50 goblets of chocolate per day. Unlike potatoes and tomatoes, chocolate quickly caught on (can’t imagine why?) and its popularity spread around the world. Chocolate was first manufactured in the United States in 1765. Where the next starchy veggie grows…


Most French cooks still look down their noses at corn and consider it only food for livestock and poultry. Corn, native to the Americas (wild corn existed in Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley 7000 years ago), was the staple grain of the region for centuries before the Europeans arrived. Corn is an inexpensive substitute for wheat and is used to make oils, sweetening agents and American bourbon (and it’s getting plenty of flack right now started by Michael Pollan’s new food bible, The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Baby corn is popular in Thai and Chinese dishes; polenta (cornmeal) is a common Northern Italian dish; and grits, hush puppies, and cornbread dominate the American South diet. Popcorn, first eaten by Native Americans, has also spread throughout the world as a snack food.

Another huge American crop, and a lifesaver for vegetarians and vegans, are…


Soybeans probably originated in eastern China thousands of years ago, but during the past millennium, they made their way into Japanese cuisine and throughout the rest of the world. Soybeans are used in tofu, margarine, shortening, mayonnaise, and salad oils. Protein-rich soybean meal is increasingly used in human food products and play a significant role in third-world countries.


Maybe Chiquita is right and the banana is the world’s most perfect food, but the lowly peanut ranks right up there. High in protein and B-vitamins, peanuts reign during baseball and basketball games. Cultivated in South America since ancient times, peanuts’ primary American product, peanut butter, still hasn’t caught on in the rest of the world, though peanut oil is increasing in popularity in Asia.

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