Delicious history

Imagine a year of lunches without a single potato chip, apple slice, or carrot stick. No French fries, no ketchup, no tacos. And forget about corn flakes for breakfast, too. That's the kind of menu you'd be facing if enterprising humans hadn't discovered, tasted, developed, improved, and transplanted fruits and vegetables growing in one region to the rest of the world. Would you have been brave enough to try a tomato, once thought to be poisonous? Could you have seen the snack potential in an Andean tuber? The crunchy possibilities of a meadow weed called Queen Anne's lace? Someone did. And your meals are that much richer and more enjoyable because of them.

We've harvested some extraordinary stories of ordinary food and present them here. Have you heard the truth about Johnny Appleseed and the secret of "baby" carrots? Read on.

A-maize-ing grain

By now you surely know that corn was originally a native American food and is called "maize" outside the United States. ("Mahiz" was the the original Taino Indian word. Elsewhere in the world, "corn" refers to any kind of grain.)

Scientists have found corn kernels that are 8,600 years old in caves in Mexico, where they believe the crop was first cultivated. Originally each individual kernel was covered with a husk, much like oats or barley. But as corn moved through Mexico it cross-bred with other native grasses, lost the individual husks, and became the modern ancestor of the corn we know today.

By the time Columbus reached the New World, fields of corn were being cultivated in North and South America. Corn was a staple of the native American diet, along with squash and beans. Together, these three crops were called "the three sisters," and they were grown in the same field. The beans climbed the corn stalks, and the squash vines crowded out weeds.

Today, corn is the second most plentiful grain in the world. Rice is No. 1 and wheat No. 3. There are five major kinds: sweet corn, popcorn, flint corn, flour corn, and dent corn. Dent corn is the most widely grown. It's used for making hominy and corn flour.

When European explorers brought corn back to Europe, they saw it as something for pigs, not people. Corn is still used for animal feed, but it's also in breakfast cereals, flour, cornmeal, starches, sweeteners (look for "high fructose corn syrup" in soda and candy), and cooking oil. Corn is even used as auto fuel (that's what ethanol is).

Sweet corn (as in "corn on the cob") was first found growing in an Iroquois village along the Susquehanna River in 1779. It didn't catch on as food until the 1840s. But since the 1870s, scientists have developed many sweet varieties.

A colorful world traveler

Originally found in Asia Minor and around Afghanistan, the carrot has traveled around the world and changed colors many times over the past 2,000 years. Black carrots, purple carrots, yellow, red, and even white carrots were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans. The orange carrot didn't come into being until the 1500s. That's when some patriotic Dutch growers bred carrots to grow the same color as the House of Orange, the Dutch royal family. The color stuck, and we now associate the carrot with orange.

Our carrot is a close relative of the wildflower Queen Anne's Lace (also known as wild carrot). You often see this pretty, gray-green plant with its round, lacy white flowers growing in meadows throughout the US. Pull one up sometime and note that the white root looks and smells like a carrot.

Carrots were grown by the Virginia colonists at Jamestown in 1609, and in Massachusetts in 1629. Thomas Jefferson grew several kinds of carrots in his garden at Monticello. You were likely to find carrots of all sizes and colors then.

The modern carrot came into being in the 1800s thanks to the efforts of French horticulturist Vilmorin-Andrieux. Working with the wildflower Queen Anne's Lace, he produced fairly good garden types of carrot with fleshy roots that were biennial. (In other words, the plants lived for two seasons. Most vegetables are annuals, living only one growing season.)

For four years, Mr. Vilmorin selected only the largest and best-formed carrots. Finally he had a plant with a thick fleshy root. Some were white, others yellow or red. These varieties were then crossed with orange carrots from Holland.

And baby carrots? They're not "babies" at all. They are a full-sized variety that grows quickly. The long carrots are then peeled, cut into thirds, and then tumbled and polished to give them a shape that is what we think young carrots must look like. The US Department of Agriculture developed the "baby" carrot and introduced them in 1988.

Taming wild apples

The wild ancestors of our modern apple still live in the remote Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, near Afghanistan. These wild apple trees can grow to be 50 feet high and live for hundreds of years. Their fruit is recognizable as an apple, but it's the size of a Ping-Pong ball, it's hard, and it's mostly seed, with little flesh.

Starting as far back as 3,000 years ago, apple trees were taken from Asia and planted in the Mediterranean region of Europe. The Greeks and Romans were growing several varieties of apple by 300 BC. Apples soon found their way across the Roman Empire, and every region came to have its favorite varieties.

European settlers brought apple seeds and trees with them to the New World. Records from the Massachusetts Bay Company indicate that apples were being grown in New England as early as 1630.

Unlike most fruits, apples ripen late in fall and can retain their flavor and quality for three to five months if kept in a cool, dry location. They provided good food for sailors and immigrants on the long journey to the Americas. The trees were adaptable to many different environments, and today apples are grown throughout the world.

Apple varieties are spread by grafting – splicing the branch of one apple tree onto another, or onto "root stock." The spliced branch is held on with tape or coated with wax until it starts to grow. If you plant the seeds of an apple, you're most likely to get a tree that bears small, sour apples like its wild forebears.

Yes, there really was a Johnny Appleseed. He was a colorful character named John Chapman who reportedly wore a cooking pot for a hat. In the 1700s, he traveled what was then the far Western frontier of the United States (Ohio). He planted apple trees just ahead of the settlers and gave away apple seeds. He didn't wear shoes and he didn't care about his belongings, so he often looked ragged. But he made sure that he brought apples to the Midwest, not willy-nilly style, but carefully planted in orchards. Chapman's sour apples were used to make apple cider – the favorite drink of frontiersmen.

You say 'tomato,' but they said 'poison'

Did you know that tomatoes were considered poisonous in England and early America? They were grown only as ornamental plants. They were sometimes called "love apples" by American colonists after the old French name for tomato, pomme d'amour.

Tomatoes were first grown in South America on the slopes of the Andes Mountains about 2,000 years ago. They traveled north as Indians pushed their way into Central America and then Mexico. Spanish explorers brought the vegetable back to Spain in the 1500s and from there they quickly spread to Italy (parts of which were governed by Spain, then). Tomatoes were immediately embraced by Italian cooks and became a mainstay of their cuisine. (Where would spaghetti – the noodles for which came from China, incidentally – be without tomato sauce?)

Tomatoes had to make their way through Western Europe before they voyaged back across the Atlantic to North America and a cool reception.

The English grew tomatoes in their gardens because they thought the plants looked pretty. But they refused to eat the fruit because the plant is related to the nightshade family, which has several poisonous species.

Again, Thomas Jefferson – who loved gardening – played a role. In 1781, he became one of the first white men in America to grow tomatoes. Later, a French refugee introduced tomatoes to Philadelphia in 1789, and an Italian painter brought them to Salem, Mass., in 1802. But it was the Creole people of New Orleans who first used tomatoes extensively in their gumbos and jambalayas as early as 1812.

By the mid-1800s tomatoes were in gardens throughout the US. In an odd footnote to history, tomatoes were declared to be a vegetable by the United States Supreme Court in 1887.

To botanists, the tomato is decidedly a fruit. The court case had to do with tariffs (taxes) that were levied on fruit imported from the West Indies. The high court decided that although tomatoes were "fruit of the vine," they could be eaten raw or cooked like other vegetables (potatoes, carrots, celery, cabbage, etc.). Also, they weren't eaten as desserts, as other fruits were. The court ruled that they were vegetables, and should not be taxed.

From the Incas to the Irish

Like tomatoes, potatoes have their roots in South America. Potatoes, too, were first cultivated high in the Andes. They were the starchy staple food of the Incas. The potatoes the Incas ate were small and bitter, and sometimes had blue or purple flesh. They didn't look like the big, white-fleshed potatoes we're familiar with today.

Explorers brought the potato to Spain, Italy, and France before 1600. But from the 1700s through the mid-1800s, the potato was most closely associated with Ireland. Because the potato was so easy to cultivate and would grow well in poor soil, it became the mainstay of the Irish diet from about 1688 to 1845.

Then a series of diseases affected Irish potato crops, which led to periods of famine. The worst famine was from 1845 to 1847. Many Irish died, and many emigrated to America.

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