Food Facts & Lore

Three Foods That Changed the World

three foods that changed the world - 158 main blog

America celebrated Woodstock’s 50th anniversary last week (August 15). The significance of this event reaches beyond the generation it marked the most. Like the first moon walk, it is one of those moments in history that have such an impact that we know about them even without access to media coverage. Woodstock changed the world, or more accurately the world was changing, and so “this happened.”

The ability of certain reality shifts to both change the world and demonstrate how it has already changed can be as simple as a sudden trend, fashion, or food innovation. With this theme in mind, here are three foods that changed the world, but perhaps not as you might imagine.

THE POTATO – The potato stands out for the strategic component of its history. Columbus brought the potato back to Spain from South America in the 16th century. It has been one of the world’s largest commercial crops ever since, though it was not immediately well received. That changed, however, once farmers realized what a powerhouse of nutrients this hardy root added to the table. In essence, greater nutritional value could be harvested from potatoes on a small parcel of land than from any other commonly cultivated plant or root spread over larger areas.

As for its strategic qualities, the potato is said to have prevented famine in many areas of Europe, but not merely due to its nutritional value or hardiness. During wars or civil uprisings, soldiers often camped on farmlands, helping themselves to grain crops as they pleased. It was much harder to deplete a potato crop.

KETCHUP – You’ve read it here before, or already knew, that the predecessor to Ketchup was an Asian fermented fish sauce. The first known tomato-based Ketchup was produced by Philadelphia physician and horticulturist James Mease in 1812. But while Meases’ recipe gave new life to the sauce in America, it did not address one common modern concern with commercial products: shelf life. The initial solution consisted in the addition of a cocktail of preservatives. That is, until a now historical duo applied common sense to the problem and introduced natural preservatives from the only logical source: extra-ripe tomatoes. You have probably guessed the name of at least one of these geniuses, Henry J. Heinz. The second was a health inspector named Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. The year was 1869, or thereabouts.

SEAFOOD – Maybe one of your first thoughts when reading today’s title was SPAM; certainly not seafood. We passed on the SPAM, however, because the little fishies of the sea caught our attention like a giant, fat catch suddenly yanking the fish line just as the fisherman was stepping onto a mysterious dreamscape. If said fisherman had just come face-to-face with say, a Neanderthal man, he was on the right track. Archeological studies tell us that this early version of us relied almost entirely on big game animals for protein, probably to the point of driving some to extinction. Neanderthals did consume seafood, but not to the extent of their cousin, Homo Sapiens, who was a skilled fisherman. This, some believe, may have prevented its own extinction. And thus seafood changed the world.

Incidentally, our brief list provides the key ingredients for a tasty Fish & Chips dinner. And if we were to lean toward philosophy and logic as our mealtime topic, we might theorize that: if potatoes changed the world, and if Ketchup changed the world, and if seafood changed the world, then fish & chips can change the world too.

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