Key Ingredients: America by Food

What's the history of American food and food traditions?

Created in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, Museum on Main Street (MoMS) exhibition "Key Ingredients: America by Food." ;xNLx;;xNLx;The Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program is the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s key initiative that directly engages small-town audiences and brings revitalized attention to underserved rural communities through their own Main Street museums, historical societies and other cultural venues. ;xNLx;;xNLx;For more information about this traveling exhibition, visit For more about the MoMS program, check out;xNLx;;xNLx;Photo by sputput. Flickr Creative Commons. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

St. Louis: Premiere of the Ice Cream Cone

The St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 introduced the public to peanut butter, hamburgers, and ice cream cones. Perfect partners, ice cream and the cone were the ultimate in portable sweets. Up until this time, ice cream had been served in bowls and eaten with spoons.

Franciscans: Vineyards in California

Sonoma Valley owes its entire existence to Franciscan monks, who in 1767 planted the first vineyards in California.

The Colonial Casserole: Corn Porridge

The colonial version of the one-dish meal, a corn porridge called "samp," was a staple of both Native American and colonial diets.

Spice News: The Chile Pepper

Various forms of the fruit capsicum were grown in Central and South America as early as 9000 years ago. Use of the fruit by cultures in North America also grew over the centuries. Green and red “chile peppers,” as the capsicum fruit came to be called, became an important part of diets in what is now the Southwestern United States. The chile, in all its many hot and spicy varieties, is the basis for many famous Southwestern dishes, such as chili con carne, and for the “El Diablo” hot sauce that people buy but don’t dare eat.

The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, and Squash

Native Americans have traditionally grown three crops – corn, beans, and squash - together for thousands of years. “Companion planting” allows the plants to help one another grow. The corn provides structure to support the growing beans, which add nitrogen to the soil, and the squash spreads along the ground locking in essential moisture and preventing weed growth. The combination holds a spiritual meaning for Native Americans. According to an Onondaga farmer, who lives near Syracuse, NY, " So long as the three sisters are with us we know that we will never starve. The Creator sends them to us each year. . . . We thank Him for the gift He gives us today and every day."

Christopher Columbus: What's in a name?

Christopher Columbus and his crew ate many of the native fruits and vegetables found growing wild in the Americas during their second visit in 1493. One unusual fruit was a special favorite. Called the "Pine of the Indies" because it resembled a giant pinecone, Columbus and his crew later added the word "apple" to its name when they introduced the fruit to the English. A brilliant move, people eagerly tried the pineapple since the "apple" in the name suggested that its taste was associated with that other delicious fruit.

Foraging 101: Insects as Food

Today, on television, reality show contestants may eat bugs to win prizes. In the 16th century, edible plants, vegetables, meats, and insects were part of the highly diverse array of foodstuffs used in Native communities. Locusts, and lice were among the insects and insect larvae (newly hatched insects) that made up part of some Native diets.

Holy Cow: Beef in the Colonies

In 1611, cows arrived in Virginia's Jamestown colony just in time to help strengthen the sick and weak colonists. The winter of 1610, called the "starving time," had killed many of the colonists because they were unable to trade with local Native Americans, for lack of good relations, and because their own supplies had been destroyed by fire. During this time, they had been forced to eat all their domestic animals, including cows, depriving themselves of milk and calcium.

A Harvest Celebration Becomes a Holiday

To mark a successful planting season, the Mayflower Pilgrims prepared a one-time harvest celebration, now often referred to as the first Thanksgiving, in the fall of 1621.

Tart Berries: European Settlers Meet Cranberries

Mahon Stacy, one of the first New Jersey settlers, wrote to his brother in England about his introduction to a fruit long cultivated by Native Americans - the cranberry. He told his brother that, "An excellent sauce is made of them [the cranberries] for venison, turkeys and other great fowl and they are better to make tarts than either gooseberries or cherries." Now both red and white cranberries are grown in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and in New England.

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