By Carter Maness and Gabe Luzier
Humans transitioned from obtaining food by hunting and gathering to producing it by farming and keeping livestock about 12,000 years ago. In that time, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to discover and manufacture new foods. Here are the origins of a few of them.
The earliest-known popcorn kernels, dating back 6700 years, were discovered at two archaeological sites in northern Peru in 2012. The practice of popping corn was common among Indigenous Americans for centuries; the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés found Aztecs using it to decorate necklaces.
As with so many foods we eat today, the origins of chewing gum originated with Native peoples’ traditions. Gum as we know dates back to the Maya, who chewed the rubbery dried sap, called chicle, of the sapodilla tree (Manilkara zapota). In the 1860s, a New York City entrepreneur named Thomas Adams attempted to market chicle as a raw material for rubber tires (both chicle and rubber are plant-based latexes). When that didn’t take off, he decided to roll it into balls to be sold as (unflavored) chewing gum; he later added flavors and sugar, and the gum’s popularity rose. Adams later bought the patent to produce Chiclets—candy-coated squares of chicle—and the rest is history.
Incas and other Indigenous civilizations in the Andes domesticated the potato in Peru about 8000 years ago. In 1536, Spanish conquistadors (them again) took samples of potatoes back to Europe, believing them to be a kind of truffle. These nutrient-packed tubers spread across every temperate region of the globe where cool growing seasons dominate.
Tomatoes were basically unknown outside of the Americas before the Spanish colonizers brought them from South America to Europe in the 1500s. Rumored to be poisonous, tomatoes were considered simply decorative for decades (aristocrats called them “poison apples”). But that had changed by the time British settlers carried them to its North American colonies in the 1700s.
Monks made the first pretzels, either in northern Italy or Germany, around 600 CE. They fashioned scraps of dough to depict arms folded in prayer, baked them into the familiar pretzel shape, and awarded them to children for memorizing Bible verses. Since the Catholic Church banned eggs and leavened 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.
Read More Articles About Food History:
Okra originated in what is now Ethiopia, Eritrea, and South Sudan. Migrating peoples brought the pods to West Africa, where European colonizers and enslaved people carried it to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the American South in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its mucilaginous pods are often fried, pickled, or added to gumbo.
Coffee was first cultivated and traded in the Arabian Peninsula. In 1615, European travelers brought coffee back from Mecca, alarming the clergy, who likened the bitter concoction to an invention of Satan. It soon swept across European cities, 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 coffee instead.
Apples blossomed in eastern Turkey. Alexander the Great introduced dwarf apples from Kazakhstan to Macedonia in the 4th century BCE, after which Roman horticulturists started grafting and crossbreeding the species to make the many apple cultivars we know and grow today.
9. Ice cream
Chinese entrepreneurs packed milk into metal tubes and lowered them into icy pools, resulting in a frozen treat, about 1200 years ago. Marco Polo is rumored to have brought an early Chinese sherbet to Italy, and the idea of freezing treats then moved on to France. By the mid-1700s, ice cream had reached Britain’s American colonies, where George Washington and others popularized the refreshing concoction.
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 to Europe. By the 1740s, ketchup was a typical part of British cuisine, but it was made from mushrooms or oysters with spices like mustard, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Tomatoes only entered the picture when a Philadelphia doctor named James Mease published the first tomato ketchup recipe in 1812.
A version of this story was published in 2014; it has been updated for 2024.