Planning an all-American picnic or a patriotic potluck? What’s on the menu? Well, depending on the season, sliced fresh tomatoes and a cabbage coleslaw are popular choices. For dessert, you must have watermelon, and, of course, apple pie, practically the United States’ national dish.
Problem is, tomatoes, cabbage, watermelon, peaches and apples—as well as other traditional favorites like green beans, carrots, lima beans, okra, sweet potatoes, and more—may be at the center of established North American cuisine, but they aren’t native to the region. And maybe that’s not a problem after all. Because just as the families of most who live in the U.S. and Canada came from other countries, much of the food we grow in our vegetable gardens, pick from our orchards and heap on our dinner plates were eaten first far from our shores.
Here are a few of the best traveled of our favorite fruits and vegetables:
Tomatoes were first eaten in South America, probably during prehistoric times, and slowly migrated up into central America and Mexico. Christopher Columbus was thought to have tasted tomatoes in 1493, but it was several more years before the conquistadors brought the seeds back to Spain, and more than a hundred years after that that other European countries, and their American colonies, began to cultivate and eat tomatoes regularly.
Though the Native Americans in southwestern regions of North America probably learned first about tomatoes from immigrants, Spanish and native, moving up from South and Central America, East Coast settlers ate tomatoes from stock that had traveled from the Americas to Europe and back to the Americas again.
Some types of cabbage were domesticated in Northern China 4000 years ago and in Northern Europe 3000 years ago. By the fourth century BC, cabbage could be found throughout Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire. The vegetable was one of the first imported to the New World from Europe, brought by the French in the 16th century. It came over on ships, an important onboard staple for the early settlers and explorers, prized for its high vitamin C content and ability stay fresh during long sea journeys.
Watermelons appeared in Egyptian hieroglyphics and were preserved in pharaoh’s tombs dating from over 5000 years ago. Like the cabbage, watermelons were a favorite of sailors and spread by ship throughout the Mediterranean, landing in China in the 10th century and moving throughout Europe by the 13th century. This tasty summer favorite arrived on the shores of North America from both Europe and Africa, brought first by European settlers and the African men and women they enslaved.
And what about those all-American apples for that all-American pie? The apple may be the earliest cultivated fruit in the world! There’s evidence that the ancestors of our modern-day apples grew in central Asia almost a million years ago. Alexander the Great is said to have introduced the popular fruit to Europe around 300 BC. The first European settlers of North America brought the fruits with them and quickly began to develop their own varieties, mostly for cider, by far the most popular beverage during colonial times.
Many people probably think peaches originated in Georgia. It is known as “the peach state”, after all, and the peach is the official state fruit. But the peach began its journey from China where wild species still grow today. Archaeologists believe that the Chinese were cultivating peaches at least 7,500 years ago. From China the peach found its way to Persia (Iran) and from there to Europe. It was Spanish monks who brought peaches to North America in the 16th century. Native peoples were then instrumental in expanding the range of peach trees by planting peach pits as they traveled, prior to peaches eventually becoming a commercial crop in the 1800s.
Fruits Native to North America
There are only a few modern favorite fruits that have their origins in North America, among them, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, strawberries, some grapes and gooseberries. The only vegetable still found, occasionally, on our tables today that can claim North American heritage is the misleadingly named Jerusalem artichoke. But if we talk about fruits and vegetables from all the Americas—Central and South as well as North—then the list expands to include a host of familiar vegetables: corn, peppers, many types of beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squash.
The United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson, was probably the singularly most influential gardener when it came to bringing the fruits and vegetables we think of as quintessentially American to North America. He introduced to the New World over 330 varieties of 99 species of familiar herbs and vegetables in his gardens at Monticello. Learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s famous gardens and the plants he grew.