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Tips for Students: Eat Your Way Through History

Highlights from Expert Series

The following article shares highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and their parents.

Authored by: Rosanne Daryl Thomas

Food history is a topic that grows all the time.  There is always something new and fascinating to learn about it.   And sometimes you can eat your research! 😊 Without realizing it, we eat our way through history every day.  Every time we sprinkle a little salt or pepper we’re tapping deep into ancient cultures and how people connected with each other over time and all over the world, what people believe, creativity, travel across great distances, exploration across the sea, the pleasures and perils of pursuing a new flavor, the power of telling a story – whether it turns out to be true or not …and that’s before we get to the main course and dessert!


We covered a lot of time and space, and we could do it all over again without running out of things to discover but here are a few thoughts to take away.

Chocolate, vanilla, potatoes, tomatoes come from where?  No, not the grocery store 😊 They all come from Central and South America going back all the way to the Incas and Aztecs and Mayans!  Often, Spanish explorers brought these foods to Europe where they became status foods for a wealthy few (chocolate), objects of suspicion (tomatoes), and dietary staples so important that countries depended on them for survival (potatoes).

The history of sugar is one that combines the spread of a new and wonderful sweetener that captivated Europe and the wide world beyond with its many, many delicious possibilities – and the absolute horrors of human slavery.   Both.  At the same time. They were intertwined. It is safe to assume that some people just didn’t know what was involved.  It was also, perhaps, too easy to just keep on enjoying those delicious pastries without thinking too much about it, and to simply turn away from the cost in human suffering.  Demand created an opportunity for great fortunes to be made in terrible ways.  Sugar played a role in the expansion of slavery and, because many people (abolitionists) publicly objected and raised awareness, sugar also played a meaningful role in the fight against it.  Slavery is outlawed throughout the world, but it still exists in our world today.

A slave, Edmond Albius, is responsible for the way vanilla is still pollenated today.  His story is amazing.  Meanwhile, 99% of what we call vanilla, that is, “vanilla flavoring”, does not come from vanilla! If you look up what’s actually in artificial vanilla flavoring, you might find it rather mind-boggling.

When we think about changing attitudes, it is tempting to think ignorance about what is, and is not, good for you is in the past.  But is it really?  So much of what we believe has to do with the times we are living in as well as well as what is, and is not, scientifically correct.

It might be interesting to think about how some of the ways we eat keep changing as information and beliefs change.  And what about the influence of advertising?  In the Middle Ages, Grains of Paradise were ‘advertised’ as pepper from the Garden of Eden.  Was it really?  No.  Nowadays, how has advertising had an effect on what you want to eat or drink?

For instance, Coca-Cola was advertised as a brain tonic.  It contained cocaine!  Attitudes about that have certainly changed.  Coca-Cola is no longer considered a brain tonic and cocaine is against the law – and very much not in the recipe any more.  On the other hand, some people are skeptical about some of the sweetening additives, like Aspartame.

We are still discovering that certain ingredients that were very popular just a few years ago are not good for us.  For instance, the human body needs salt, but eating too much processed food has been found to be unhealthy.  I would expect that we will also discover that some foods many of us would not have eaten in the past might turn out to be very healthy after all.  Seaweed, anyone? How about some nice, delicious insects? 😊

Much of what we have come to think of as “all-American” food was brought to the United States from other countries, and very, very often by immigrants who left their homelands seeking a new life and opportunity while bringing their traditions with them!  Yes – ice cream, French fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, macaroni and cheese, tacos, bagels, pickles, mustard, peppers, Chinese food, Indian food, Japanese food, Korean food, African and African-American food!  Can you think of any others?  I’m sure there’s a lot more!

And if you get interested in how these all-American foods came to America, there’s a lot you can find out about it.  Just don’t expect everyone to agree when it comes to taking credit for being first.  Remember all the claims about who invented the hamburger and the hot dog? 😊

Things students can do to explore this topic further

Here is a little project anyone can have fun doing and it’s free.  Take a look at the spices in your house or in the spice section of your local grocery store.  Choose one that you like (or one that you don’t).  For example, let’s say you spot a jar of curry.  Become a detective.  Sniff the ‘evidence’.  What’s in it?  Find out where it came from.  How far back does it go?  Check out an online spice company that might have all kinds of varieties.  Wikipedia is often a pretty good starting point.  See if it sparks more questions. You can take your exploration as far as you want by using your imagination as you research.  I chose curry as an example for a reason.  The same week we were doing our Webinar, a new discovery was made about the oldest evidence of curry outside of India. Ask yourself questions:  What does that say about how people traded knowledge and information?  Have a blast. You’ll be amazed at what you find – and you’ll have a more interesting relationship with what you’re eating.  Warning: This is totally, totally habit forming! 😊 I like thinking about how much fun you will have with this!

I promised I would include some info about what is reputedly the most expensive spice in the world, saffron.

!! Advice:  Keep finding things out!  You will never be bored if you are exploring food history.


There are a lot of great resources.  This is a very rich subject and it will repay your curiosity with a lot of information. As always, you should use good judgment and caution on the internet. Rumors and opinions are not facts, so if you want to really be ‘in the know’ pay attention to the source.  National Geographic and Smithsonian do a terrific job with food history.  There is a website called Gastro Obscura which posts many fascinating articles that can be both illuminating and, sometimes, downright strange.  There’s a spice company called McCormick with a science institute that has a wonderful resource page that you can use as a starting point. And I could go on and on and on, but this will get you started.  Also, watch for science news and the occasional feature story, like this one on pineapples.  What a story!

I didn’t use video during my presentation this time – We had so much to talk about already! – but TED and TED-ED are great places to snack on food history tidbits.  The presentations are relatively short and always informative. I know they have talks on the history of tea, corn, and cheese for starters. And don’t forget the good old encyclopedia.  I use it a lot.

Speaker Bio:
Rosanne Daryl Thomas is the author of five books, including literary fiction, humor, and a memoir about beekeeping, and has an MFA from Columbia University. She is also the mother of a former YS who grew up to become a writer. Rosanne has loved facilitating YS writing seminars for over a decade, and now offers remote one-on-one coaching and engaging seminars in creative writing tailored to the needs of gifted students and adults.


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