The Suitcase Lady


November 17, 2020, 2:26 pm

Our fields are full of world travelers. A person attempting to eat plants native to his or her own continent would be facing a severely depleted dinner plate. Seeds like to take journeys.

I’ve long been fascinated with origins, and that includes the ancient origins of food. Many of the most common foods have taken incredible journeys before ending up in American fields and gardens.

See if you can guess the origins of these six plants: peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, rice, blueberries and carrots. Don’t feel bad if you don’t score 100%, most answers are not obvious.

Peanuts, a legume of the pea family, originated in Peru or Brazil. Explorers introduced peanuts to Spain and Portugal and from there more Spanish explorers and traders took peanuts to Asia and Africa. In the 1700s, peanuts returned to the Western Hemisphere when African slaves brought them to North America and the Caribbean.

Potatoes are native to the Andes Mountains in Peru and Bolivia where they have been cultivated for thousands of years. The Incas discovered how to preserve their spuds by piling them outside on freezing mountain nights and then stomping on them with their feet to dehydrate and mash them. These “freeze dried” potatoes are called Chuño which is eaten in Peru to this day.

Tomatoes also originated in the Andes Mountains in what is now Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. The Incas cultivated them as early as 700 AD. Tomatoes came to Europe in the 16th century but were used only as an ornamental plant as the tomatoes were thought to be poisonous. It was not until the aristocrats stopped eating off their pewter plates that tomatoes were exonerated. The high acid content in the tomatoes leached the lead out of the pewter and, voila, lead poisoning.

Blueberries are one of the few fruit species that are North American natives. Therefore, the saying “As American as apple pie” should be retired. Apple trees originated in Central Asia. “As American as blueberry pie” is true blue.

Carrots originated in the hot, dry lands of Iran and Afghanistan around 3,000 BC. In ancient times they were yellow, white or purple. Our familiar orange carrots were bred in the Netherlands in the 17th century and this may have been in tribute to William of Orange who led the struggle for Dutch independence.

Rice, which feeds more people than any food in the world, is from Asia. Current research indicates that it was first domesticated in the Yangtze River Valley in China. It is interesting to note that American wild rice is a native of North America. However, it is an annual aquatic grass, not a grain, and in a separate genus from true rice.

Happy eating!

Ramona Bustos walking barefoot on potatoes to create chuño, a freeze-dried Andean staple, near La Paz, Bolivia, in 2013.Credit… NYT/Juan Karita/Associated Press

2 Comments for this entry

  • Annapolis Tooley Family

    Keaton and John have started an indoor garden project for the coming winter. They just planted heirloom fish pepper and yellow tomato seeds. Keaton is especially excited about the pepper as it is between habanero and jalapeno in terms of heat levels. We just discovered through your inspiration that the fish pepper has a rich African American history. They nearly became lost in the early 20th century. Extra bonus is the beauty of the foliage! We took interest in this after watching a cool news snippet on endangered plants.

  • Mary

    That sounds like a cool, or more correctly, hot project for winter. I love finding out these food origins because they are great stories. Helps us appreciate the food we eat it more as well!