Where does your food come from? The fascinating stories of how some of our favorite foods made it to America

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You might think of lunch as your break between social studies and math class, but the food you eat every day is actually a lesson in itself.

In fact, many of the foods we eat have long histories that date back several centuries. Some foods traveled all over the world before they reached the United States, and many had to be domesticated before they could be easily consumed. (Domestication is the process of adapting wild plants and animals for human use.)

Here’s a look at some of America’s favorite foods, and how they ended up on our plates.

Worldly Wheat

You may have already had some wheat today. It’s in everything from cereal and bread to crackers and pasta. Scientists believe this staple first grew in the Middle East. Archaeologists have found remains of wheat grains near present-day Damascus, Syria, that date back to about 9000 B.C.

By about 4000 B.C., wheat farming had spread to Asia, Europe, and Africa. Christopher Columbus brought wheat to the Americas in 1493 on his second voyage to the West Indies, and colonists brought it from England in the early 1600s. They planted the crop in Jamestown, Virginia.

Today, wheat is the world’s most widespread crop–farmers grow 25 billion bushels of it a year.

Burger Beef

The history of the hamburger starts in Hamburg, Germany.

Cattle were domesticated in Mesopotamia (part of present-day Iraq) around 8000 B.C. Nearly 10,000 years later, in the early 1800s, Hamburg became known for its seasoned beef, which was shaped into patties.

When Germans began immigrating to America in waves in the mid-1800s, they brought their tastes with them. Before long, Americans were eating Hamburg-style beef. It was popular but hard to eat on the go, especially for the growing number of factory workers who bought their lunches from food carts.

The problem was solved–and the hamburger was born–when someone thought to put the patty between two slices of bread, although who had this idea first is disputed. Restaurants from Connecticut to Texas claim to have made the first hamburger.

Regardless of who invented it, the hamburger became one of America’s favorite foods. In 1921, two businessmen opened the country’s first fast-food hamburger restaurant, White Castle, in Wichita, Kansas. McDonald’s opened in the 1940s in California. Today, more than 40 billion hamburgers are served each year in the U.S.


Coffee or Tea?

Your mocha Frappuccino[TM] might not be on the menu if it weren’t for some goats in Ethiopia.

According to legend, a shepherd in that East African country discovered coffee after his goats ate berries from a coffee plant and were too wired to sleep.

While that part of the story is debatable, coffee beans are native to Ethiopia. By the 1200s, people in the nearby Arabian Peninsula were roasting the beans to make the drink we know today. In 1616, Dutch traders got their hands on some coffee plants and started supplying coffee to Europe.

Colonists brought coffee to America in the mid-1600s, although tea continued to be the favorite drink of the New World. That changed in 1773 when colonists, angry about a British tea tax, stormed British ships and dumped an entire tea shipment into Boston Harbor. Thanks to the Boston Tea Party, it became a patriotic duty to avoid tea, and coffeehouses profited as a result. Today, Americans sip about 400 million cups of coffee each day compared with about 158 million cups of tea.

Tater Tales

Would you like fries with that? If so, you can thank South America–it’s where potatoes came from. The starchy staple originated in the Andes Mountains near present-day Peru and Bolivia.

Spanish explorers were introduced to potatoes in South America and brought them back to Europe around 1570. But the spuds’ lumpy, misshapen appearance led many people to believe potatoes could cause leprosy and other diseases.

Over time, however, potatoes became popular for their ability to grow in many climates and quickly fill bellies. They became a major food source in many parts of Europe, including Ireland.

Potatoes were brought to the American colonies from Europe in 1621, but they were not widely grown here until 1719, when Irish immigrants planted them in present-day New Hampshire. Today, the U.S. ranks fourth in the world in potato production, behind China, Russia, and India.

A Saucy Story

Long before kids were smothering foods in ketchup, the Chinese were using it to flavor seafood. The condiment started out as a tomato-less fish sauce in China. The word ketchup comes from a word that means “fish sauce” in some Chinese dialects.

Centuries ago, Chinese traders took their ketchup with them on sea voyages to Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. There, British traders developed a taste for the sauce. By the 1600s, they were taking ketchup home.

The English, who referred to any kind of spiced sauce as ketchup, made several types, including walnut- and oyster-based varieties. Settlers brought these sauces with them to America during the colonial period.

The first tomato ketchup recipe was written in 1812 in the U.S., and today, according to surveys, there’s a bottle in 97 percent of U.S. homes.

Plain or Butter?

Corn was cultivated in Mexico about 9,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte. It was later brought to South America.

People in Peru were the first to make popcorn, according to archaeologists. They recently unearthed traces of the snack in northern Peru from about 6,700 years ago.

From there, popcorn spread through the Americas. According to legend, the snack was served at the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts in 1621, but historians say that story holds as much hot air as a bag of microwave popcorn. Colonists in that area did grow corn, they say, but it was a type that was too delicate for popping.

The first record of popcorn in what is now the U.S. comes from French explorers. They wrote of watching Iroquois in the Great Lakes region pop corn kernels in 1612. Experts say the first European-American popcorn makers were probably settlers in that area.

Mass consumption of popcorn took off in the late 1800s, with the invention of the popcorn-popping machine. Today, Americans are the world’s biggest popcorn eaters–we snack on about 16 billion quarts per year.

Tomato Talk

Believe it or not, tomatoes didn’t start out in Italy. The fruit originated in South America, near present-day Peru and Ecuador. The Aztecs in Central America and Mexico were eating tomatoes as early as 700 A.D., eventually combining them with chilies to make a salsa-like sauce, but how and when the fruit got to that region is uncertain.

Spanish conquistadors came across tomatoes in Mexico in the early 1500s and brought them back to Europe. The fruit was welcomed into Spanish and Italian cooking, but people in many other European countries, including England, thought the tomato was poisonous.

Colonists brought that fear with them to America. It wasn’t until the early 1800s, as Americans started to learn more about tomatoes, that the food lost its bad rap. President Thomas Jefferson (1801-09), an avid gardener, loved tomatoes and was even rumored to snack on them whole.

Today, the U.S. is one of the world’s top producers of tomatoes.

Caption: Food on the Move: This map shows where foods originated and how they got tot the Americas


After the U.S. transformed Hamburg-style meat into the hamburger, American soldiers stationed overseas during World War II (1939-45) helped introduce the sandwich to other countries. Research three other foods that started out in the U.S. and trace how they reached other parts of the world.


When Christopher Columbus (right) reached the Americas in 1492, his voyage set in motion what historians call the Columbian Exchange–a huge swap of plants, animals, and diseases between j the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

European explorers brought plants from Europe, Africa, and Asia to the New World, including wheat and rice, along with domesticated animals, such as horses and cattle. They returned home with American crops, such as potatoes and corn.

The Columbian Exchange transformed–for better and for worse–the world’s agriculture and ecosystems.



1. When did the Columbian Exchange begin?

2. In which country did ketchup originate?

3. Which three foods on the map originated in Peru?

U. In which direction did European explorers travel to bring wheat to the West Indies?

5. Which food on the map was not brought across an ocean on its journey to the U.S.?

6. What kinds of animals did European explorers bring to the New World?

7. On which continent did wheat originate?

8. After coffee beans were discovered in Ethiopia, where were they taken next?

9. Which foods on the map crossed the equator on their journey to the U.S.?

10. After discovering ketchup in Asia in the 1600s, why do you think British traders had to sail around Africa to get back to Europe? Is there a faster way for ships in the Indian Ocean to reach Europe today? Research your answer.


1. 1492

2. China

3. tomatoes, potatoes, popcorn

4. southwest

5. popcorn

6. horses and cattle

7. Asia

8. Arabian Peninsula

9. ketchup, popcorn, potatoes, tomatoes

10. In the 1600s, Europe-bound ships in the Indian Ocean had to make the long journey around Africa because there was no other way. This changed in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal, an artificial waterway in Egypt that joins the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. When it opened, the Suez Canal reduced the shipping route between the United Kingdom and India by nearly half. Today it is one of the world’s most heavily used shipping routes.

GEOSKILLS Lexile score: 1050L


OBJECTIVE Students will read a section from an article, make a presentation on that information, and use their listening skills to record information based on other students’ presentations.

KEY STANDARDS RH.6-8.2, SL.6-8.2

TIME FRAME Approximately one class period

ARTICLE SUMMARY This article examines seven common foods, including where they originated, and how and when they arrived in the United States. The foods that students will read about are wheat, hamburgers, coffee, potatoes, ketchup, popcorn, and tomatoes. The article includes a color-coded map showing the routes each food took from its point of origin to America, information about the Columbian Exchange, and 10 geography-based skills questions.



1 Pre-reading discussion no minutes)

Get students thinking about the topic by having a quick discussion using the following questions:

* What kinds of foods do you like?

* What do you take into consideration when selecting food? For example, do you try to eat local or healthy? Why or why not?

* Where do you think certain foods and crops come from?


2 Read aloud (5 minutes)

As a class, read aloud the introduction to the article and preview the headings. Then have students count off by seven to create seven small groups. Assign each group one of the foods to read about.

3 Group reading (5 minutes)

Have students read their assigned food section, underlining central ideas. Allow groups to decide whether they would like to read the section silently or have members take turns reading aloud.

Teaching Tip

Give students options for presenting their information but require that they deliver it orally. Some groups may also choose to write out their central ideas on an overhead or chart paper.


4 Identify central ideas (5 MINUTES)

Each group should prepare the central ideas from their section to present to their peers. Have students simplify the information into short sentences, or allow them to bullet their information for discussion.

5 Sharing, listening, and note-taking |15 minutes) Pass out the graphic organizer skills sheet “Keeping Track of Information,” which can be downloaded from the Printables section of www.scholastic.com/js. Have students complete each section of the graphic organizer as they listen to their classmates present their assigned section of the reading. Students should also complete their own section. After all of the groups have presented, have students answer the last two questions and discuss their answers as a class.

6 Geoskills Questions quest (15 minutes) Have students work in pairs to complete the questions on p. 19. Go over the answers as a class.


Lower Level Create mixed-ability groups so each student has strengths to share, such as speaking, listening, reading, or gathering important information.

Higher Level Allow students to lead small-group discussions based on the central ideas recorded in the skills sheet.


Did students comprehend the article by making a presentation, listening to their peers, and taking notes?