Coming to America: How 10 Classics Made Their Way to Our Plates

Brush up on the origins of your favorite eats! 

1. Popcorn

More than 4,000 years old, the earliest popcorn kernels were discovered in a Mexican bat cave once occupied by the Cochise Indians. The practice of popping corn was common among Native Americans: Ancient crumbs have been discovered in Peruvian tombs, while Cortes found Aztecs using it to decorate necklaces. Up north, colonists stumbled upon the snack at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, where the chief’s brother carried a batch in a deerskin bag.

2. Gum

Chewing for recreation became fashionable among colonists after they saw Native Americans chomp on the gummy resin of spruce trees. By the 19th century, Americans were chewing on paraffin wax, which today is used in candles and crayons. But gum as we know it really dates back to the Maya—who chewed dried sapodilla latex, called chicle. This came to Staten Island with the exiled Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna in 1869. He tried peddling chicle as a replacement for rubber tires, but local businessman Thomas Adams realized it had potential to be more fun: He invented the Chiclet.

3. Potatoes

The tuber was domesticated in Peru about 7,000 years ago, and in 1536 Spanish explorers took it to the continent, believing it was a kind of truffle. British spies considered the potato a superfood and may have snuck it to England, but locals were skeptical. (It grew underground and was therefore “Satanic.”) So they shipped it to Ireland. Meanwhile down south, the French loved the starch so much that Marie Antoinette put potato blossoms in her hair!

4. Tomatoes

Tomatoes first sprouted in the Andes, but Spaniards spread the fruit far and wide in the 1500s. Rumored to be poisonous, they were simply decorative for decades (aristocrats called them “poison apples”). But that changed by the time the Brits brought them to the Carolinas in the 1700s.

5. Pretzels

Monks made the first pretzels, either in Northern Italy or Germany, around 600 C.E. The holy men reportedly took scraps of dough, twisted them to depict arms folded in prayer, and awarded them to children for memorizing Bible verses. Since the Catholic Church banned eggs and bread during Lent, the pretzel became a go-to snack, and it migrated to Austria and Belgium. In the early 1700s, German immigrants brought pretzels to Pennsylvania, which today produces 80 percent of America’s pretzels!

6. Okra

It’s believed that okra stemmed from Ethiopia and spread across Africa as the Bantu people migrated. It moved eastward to India, and, somewhere along the way, European explorers found the plant and brought it to Brazil and the West Indies in the 1500s. French colonists and African slaves introduced it to the U.S. in the early 1700s.

7. Coffee

Coffee was cultivated and traded in the Arabian Peninsula, near Turkey and Syria. The secret got out in 1615, when Europeans ventured to Mecca and brought the drink back. Clergy insisted it was the “bitter invention of Satan,” but when Pope Clement VIII tried some, he called it heavenly. It swept Europe, and by the mid-1600s, London had over 300 coffee houses. Dutch immigrants brought the fad to New York City, but tea stayed America’s favorite hot brew until 1773, when colonists revolted against British tea tariffs by drinking the bean.

8. Apples

Apples blossomed in eastern Turkey. After exploring Kazakhstan in the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great introduced dwarf apples to Macedonia. The Romans caught wind and people started grafting and crossbreeding the tree to make the many cultivars we know today.

9. Ice cream

The Chinese first packed a mixture of rice and milk in snow 2,200 years ago. Marco Polo brought an early Chinese sherbet to Italy, and the idea of freezing treats then moved on to France. By 1744, it had reached the American colonies, where the insulated icehouse made ice cream as we know it widely available.

10. Ketchup

Originally, ketchup didn’t contain tomatoes at all! The earliest iteration was made of pickled fish brine from China’s Fujian province. A reliable preservative, the sauce became a favorite among Dutch and British sailors, who brought it home. By the 1740s, ketchup was a typical part of British cuisine, but it was a muddy goop made from mushrooms or oysters with spices like mustard, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Tomatoes entered the picture when a Philadelphia doctor named James Mease published the first tomato ketchup recipe in 1812. After the Civil War, its popularity exploded. (Richard Nixon once said that his favorite breakfast was ketchup and cottage cheese.)


This article by Carter Maness and Gabe Luzier is reprinted with permission from the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

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The potato story lacks the legend of Fredrick the Great of Prussia who, in the 1770s, tried to encourage his people to grow potatoes. The people viewed them with suspicion, and so:
"Frederick used a bit of reverse psychology: he planted a royal field of potato plants and stationed a heavy guard to protect this field from thieves. Nearby peasants naturally assumed that anything worth guarding was worth stealing, and so snuck into the field and snatched the plants for their home gardens."
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