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)

1493-01-13 00:00:00

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.

1500-01-01 00:00:00

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.

1500-01-01 00:00:00

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."

1500-01-01 00:00:00

Pemmican: The Ultimate Survival Food

Long before refrigerators or microwaves or zip-lock bags, Native Americans made foods that could be carried easily and would last months.

1500-01-01 10:57:00

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.

1600-01-01 00:00:00

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.

1600-01-01 10:57:00

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.

1600-04-01 00:00:00

Africans Introduce New Foods to America

Enslaved Africans carried with them seeds from their native foods, including yams, watermelons, okra, and several varieties of beans, and cultivated them in secret.

1611-01-01 00:00:00

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.

1621-01-01 11:26:24

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.

1650-04-01 00:00:00

Resourceful Use of Veggies

Besides preparing animal parts discarded by slaveholders, enslaved Africans also had to make meals out of vegetable parts that were considered inedible.

1690-01-01 00:00:00

Rice: Major Cash Crop of the South

In 1690, the colonists in South Carolina asked to pay their taxes in rice rather than in gold or silver. When their petition was granted, Carolinians started to grow rice in large quantities.

1700-01-01 00:00:00

Resourceful Use of Meat

Enslaved Africans were often forced to use cast-off ingredients from plantation kitchens.

1700-01-01 00:00:00

Barbecue: South Meets West

The mingling of Native American, Anglo, and African traditions gave birth to what present-day Americans know as barbecue.

1700-01-01 00:00:00

Creole Heat: Meat and Fish Over Rice

Cajuns trace their ancestry from the Acadian French expelled from Nova Scotia.

1700-01-01 00:00:00

Hello New York: Oysters in America

In New York City, a primitive saloon in a basement on Broad Street began serving oysters to ordinary workingmen in 1763.

1700-01-01 10:57:00

Hot Chocolate: Introduced by Native Americans

For thousands of years, native civilizations in Mesoamerica enjoyed drinks made from cacao beans.

1767-04-01 00:00:00

Franciscans: Vineyards in California

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

1775-01-01 00:00:00

Revolutionary War: An Army of Cooks

If today's army doesn't like the taste of MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat), they should try a bite of what soldiers during the Revolutionary War stomached.

1800-01-01 00:00:00

The Southwest: Home of Chili

Thanks to the use of chile peppers by Native Americans over the centuries in North America, people in the Southwest had developed a taste for spicy stews and hashes.

1805-01-01 10:57:00

Lewis & Clark: Nine Pounds of Buffalo a Day

Going through what is now part of Montana in 1805, Lewis and Clark's men were astounded by the wildlife they encountered.

1836-01-01 10:57:00

Pioneers on the Oregon Trail: No Veggies

Pioneers on the Oregon Trail might have died of food boredom if not for a host of more dangerous hazards such as poor sanitation, cholera, and, surprisingly, accidental gunshots.

1848-01-01 00:00:00

The Gold Rush: Terrible Rations

When prospectors during the California gold rush headed for the foothills of the Sierra Nevada to search their fortune, they were faced with two huge obstacles: they didn't know how to cook and food was scarce.

1848-04-01 00:00:00

The Gold Rush: Rise of the Restaurant

Recognizing the entrepreneurial opportunities in California, women put their domestic skills, in high demand among the predominately male prospectors, to good use.

1852-01-01 10:57:00

Building the Railroad: The Chinese in America

By 1852, 25,000 Chinese immigrants were in California to work in mines, pick crops, and, increasingly, build the railroads.

1853-01-01 10:57:00

Potato Chips: Kettle-cooked Perfection

Snack food history was made when a fussy customer met a chunky French fry. George Crum, a talented chef of Native American and African American ancestry, created the first potato chip in 1853 at the Moon Lake Resort in Saratoga Springs, NY.

1861-01-01 00:00:00

Civil War: Same Food Every Day

Unlike their counterparts in the Union army, Confederate soldiers had even fewer choices when it came to food. They were given bacon, cornmeal, tea, sugar or molasses, and, sometimes, vegetables.

1861-01-01 10:57:00

Civil War: "Sheet Iron Crackers"

During the Civil War, the butt of many battlefield jokes was a flour biscuit called "hardtack."

1870-04-01 00:00:00

Victorian Culture: Food and Status

Queen Victoria ruled England, but her way of life was imitated all over the world, including the United States.

1871-01-01 00:00:00

Chewing Gun: The Gift of Chicle

“Chicle”, a milky juice from the sapodilla tree used as a basis for chewing gum, has been harvested by Native Americans in Mexico and Mesoamerica for more than 3,000 years.

1876-01-01 00:00:00

The James Brothers: Chili Shootout

By 1876, cattle drivers, cowboys, and other trail hands had popularized chili all over the Southwest.

1886-01-01 00:00:00

Coca-Cola: Caffeine and Cocaine

Dr. John Pemberton, a pharmacist, invented Coca-Cola in 1886

1893-04-01 00:00:00

Heinz "57 Varieties": Advertising Genius

Only 25, Henry J. Heinz, a German American, began his enterprise in 1869 by selling his mother's grated horseradish in a clear glass jar to show its purity: no leaves, no wood fiber, no turnip filler. By proudly displaying the quality of his product, he began to earn the public's trust.

1900-04-01 00:00:00

Turn-of-the-Century Dinners: A Dozen Courses With Wine

Well-to-do people at the turn of the century consumed huge twelve-course meals, each course accompanied by its own wine.

1900-04-01 00:00:00

Science and Eating: The Rise of Health Food

At the same time that well-to-do families were eating twelve-course dinners, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a vegetarian, created a cold breakfast cereal, called "corn flakes," to replace meat at the breakfast table.

1900-04-01 00:00:00

Moon Pies: A Southern Tradition

How is a legend born? To hear it told in Tennessee, the Chattanooga Bakery had a clever salesman. One day the salesman asked a bunch of coal miners about their favorite snacks.

1904-04-01 00:00:00

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.

1905-04-01 00:00:00

Frozen Treats: A Twin Pop by Any Other Name

In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson of San Francisco, CA, left a fruit drink outside, with a stirrer in it, on a night of record low temperatures. It froze and he named the treat the Ep-cicle.

1910-04-01 00:00:00

George Washington Carver: Food Scientist

George Washington Carver, a brilliant African American scientist, revolutionized Southern agriculture by advocating crop rotation (growing different plants every year to improve the soil), a practice long embraced by Native Americans.

1914-04-01 00:00:00

World War I: Food Shortages and Self-Service Grocery Stores

During World War I, many foods were in short supply, like butter and eggs. So Americans developed new recipes for eggless-butterless cakes, using a new product called Crisco instead of hard-to-get lard.

1915-04-01 00:00:00

Frozen Foods: Americans Say What?

Clarence Birdseye was on an expedition to the Arctic when he made a shivering discovery. He noticed that meat exposed to the Arctic air tasted as good cooked as fresh meat, even when it was cooked several months later.

1920-04-01 00:00:00

Chop Suey:East Meets West

"Chop suey" is actually a Chinese-American dish invented in California, probably by one of the thousands of Chinese looking for work during the mid-19th century, where cooks were constrained by the lack of Asian vegetables and trying to produce a dish that was easy to prepare and palatable to Americans.

1920-04-01 00:00:00

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: New Convenience Foods

By the late 1920s, Americans were able to buy a variety of food in cans - everything from tuna to pineapple. Other ready-made foods included Kool-Aid, Jell-O, Velveeta, and peanut butter.

1921-04-01 00:00:00

Fast Food Freedom:The Slyder is Born

In 1921, the first White Castle restaurant opened in Wichita, KS, offering hamburgers at the unbelievably low price of $.05 apiece.

1929-04-01 00:00:00

The Great Depression: Americans Learn to Ration

After the stock market crash in 1929, the American economy fell apart and 13 million people lost their jobs. Families cut down to two meals a day or ate on alternate days.

1930-04-01 00:00:00

Toll House Cookies: A Chocolate Accident

One of America's favorite cookies came about through a random occurrence.

1941-04-01 00:00:00

World War II: PB & J for Victory

Both peanut butter and jelly were part of the U.S. military's rations during World War II.

1950-04-01 00:00:00

1950: Casseroles and Barbecues

The huge assortments of foods ready-to-eat or processed foods - canned meats, soups, and vegetables - available in the 1950s were very popular with the era's cooks.

1953-04-01 00:00:00

Fast Food At Home: The TV Dinner

C.A. Swanson's and Sons, a food processing company, had a problem - a 270-ton problem. That's how much leftover turkey the company had to use before it spoiled.

1955-04-01 00:00:00

McDonald's: The All-American Meal

In 1955, Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald's franchise in suburban Chicago. His advertising slogan was "The All American Meal:" a $.15 hamburger ($.04 extra for cheese), $.10 fries, and a $.20 shake.

Key Ingredients: America by Food

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