Wheat, Rye, Oats: (Old World)

The European settlers loved their wheat bread. Although wheat was less productive per acre than any other grain, they had to have it. Growing wheat, rye, and oats was unsuccessful in the tropical, sea-level colonies of the Americas, but these grains became widely planted in dry, temperate climates, and in the higher altitudes of places like Mexico in Central America and Peru in South America. By the mid-1500s both regions were producing enough to supply remote areas of the Spanish colonies. Native Americans in the lowland regions remained faithful to their longtime staple, corn, and were slow to adapt to these new grains. Oats were more popular with Northern Europeans and were adopted into the cooler climates of northern Americas. The introduction of the hybrid red oat has allowed for winter cultivation in southern climates. Closely related to wheat, rye was used to make brown breads. All their efforts worked—today, wheat is eaten around the world from China to Arabia, Europe to America.

Coffee: (Old World)


Coffee tree, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West, 1794, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F2131.E26.1794 rare.

The North Africans and Arabians first discovered the rich brew that came from the coffee bean. It was not introduced to Europe until the 17th century because Arabian sultans closely guarded the plants and controlled production. The Turks finally introduced coffee to the Mediterranean through trade with Venice and in 1650, the first coffee shops appeared along the canals of the Italian city. In 1683, coffee was first sweetened with sugar.

By 1700, the coffee plants themselves had found their way to greenhouses in Europe. One of these plants traveled even further to the French colony of Martinique in the care of a military officer. It flourished in the abundant rainfall and warm temperatures and soon spread throughout the Caribbean and South America. The Portuguese then introduced coffee to their colony in Brazil and the South American coffee empires were born.

Lemons/Oranges: (Old World)

These popular evergreen citrus trees have been around for a very long time and are probably native to India or Southern China. Lemons have been cultivated in the Mediterranean region since about 200 A.D. Sour oranges have been cultivated since 1300, with sweet oranges following one hundred years later. In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought lemon seeds to Haiti and by 1565, the Spanish and Portuguese had introduced oranges to Florida and the West Indies. In the 16th century, a traveler named Jose de Acosta wrote about the orange groves he had ridden through. He asked, “Who has planted the orange groves?” He was told, that “oranges being fallen to the ground, and rotten, their seeds did spring, and of those which the water carried away into diverse parts, these woods grew so thicke.”

Millet and Yams: (Old World)


Map of West Africa, Tracts on Slave Trade, 1791, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, HT1033.F18 rare.

Millet, a drought-resistant African grain, was probably domesticated around 3000 B.C. Yams were cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa as early as 5000 B.C. (Imagine!) and by 1500 they had become the principle crop in much of the continent. They also became a food readily available for distribution to slaves during the Middle Passage to America. Europeans living in America encouraged their African slaves to grow yams and millet to help them adjust to the New World. Today, these two Old World foods are still around. Many cultures still include millet in their diet and it’s also used in American birdseed. Yams are still eaten, although they’re confused with sweet potatoes, which is a New World product. Surprisingly, yams and sweet potatoes are totally different vegetables. Yams can be identified by their white flesh and woody skin. Yams also taste sweeter than sweet potatoes.

Visit the address below for more information on the transatlantic slave trade:

Cotton: (Old World)


Cotton Plant, Asia, the First Part: Being an Accurate Description of Persia, and the Several Provinces Thereof, 1673, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, DS49.5.O35 over oversize rare.

Imagine how long cotton has been around. Historians have found evidence of cotton in the Indus Valley of India (Pakistan today) dating back to 3000 B.C. It’s also recorded that Chinese emperors wore cotton robes more than 1,300 years ago. Spreading west to Egypt, cotton has been found in pyramids, eventually made its way to Europe, and then to the Americas. Some sources state that cotton could have been in the Americas before European arrival, but it was first fully cultivated in America by the Spanish when, in 1556, a crop was grown and harvested in what is modern-day Florida. America, with its warm and temperate climate, became a prime location for growing cotton. While the cotton grown in Egypt had short fibers, making it difficult to spin into thread, the American variety of cotton had a longer and wetter growing season causing it to produce a longer fiber. This made the cotton softer and easier to spin. Cotton is a labor-intensive crop and African, then African-American slaves were used to grow and harvest the crop. Cotton is still grown today in North and Central America.

Visit the address below for more information on the transatlantic slave trade:

Sugar: (Old World)

Man has been craving sweets for centuries. Sugar cane, a major source of sweet-tasting sucrose, has been cultivated in New Guinea for ten to twelve thousand years. From 350 B.C. to 350 A.D. it was adapted to North Africa and Europe. Sugar cane was brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage in 1493 and was cultivated in Santo Domingo. In 1516, sugar was first shipped to Spain from the Americas. As consumption of sugar in Northern Europe rose from the 17th century onward, demand for sugar and the planting of it in the New World eventually developed into quite a profitable business. Why?

File Name: F2131E26-Vol2-p248-MoulinASucre

Making Sugar, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West, 1794, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F2131.E26.1794 rare.

Sugar production, though agricultural, is highly industrial as well. This created the need for a labor force and slaves became that force. Some of the first Africans brought to the Americas as slaves came with the Portuguese for the sugar plantations. The “triangle trade,” slaves to the Caribbean, sugar and molasses to North America, and rum to Africa, was long an economic staple of the English colonies.

For more information on the transatlantic slave trade:

Indigo: (Old World)

This plant, which produces a clear, bright blue dye, has been popular for 4,000 years. Britons, who called it woad, painted their bodies with it. Still popular much later, the blue of Levi Strauss’ jeans came from the indigo plant. It was imported to the New World, where it became a traditional subtropical/tropical plantation crop. Why? Producing indigo dye is labor-intensive, so it became a crop closely tied to slavery. Since the advent of synthetic dyes though, the demand for this crop has almost disappeared.

For more information on the transatlantic slave trade:

Tea: (Old World)


Sorting the tea leaves, The Island of Formosa, Past and Present, 1903, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, DS895.F7.D2.


Tea plantation near San-kak-eng, The Island of Formosa, Past and Present, 1903, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, DS895.F7.D2.

Tea is truly a worldly drink. In 1000 B.C., tea was introduced to China from Tibet, were the plant grows wild. The Chinese discovered how to steep the leaves with boiling water and introduced the drink to Dutch and Portuguese explorers. A Venetian, Giovanni Ramusio, drank the first recorded Asian tea that was imported by Russian merchants in 1559. The Dutch started growing tea in Java, India, and Sri Lanka, and in1657, tea arrived in England from Holland and the Dutch East India Company. We know how fond the English are of their tea. (Could crumpets be far behind?) Tea was then exported to the American colonies through companies that set the prices. With the additional taxes of the British government, tea became too expensive to drink. It was not until the age of clipper ships, which could sail quickly to China and India, and Queen Victoria of England, who made taking “high tea” in the afternoon popular, that the price of drinking tea became more affordable. In 1904, it is thought iced tea was accidentally discovered at the St. Louis Exposition. Today, it’s hard to think of a hot summer day without a glass of iced tea.

Rice: (Old World & New World)

By 4000 B.C., rice had become the staple crop of Asia. Native Americans also harvested a coarser wild rice that grew in marshes. Asian rice was softer and easier to chew than wild rice and it became the rice of choice for most of the world. It was quickly adopted by Americans to plant in the low, wet, tropical areas of the New World, places where the American staple, maize, would not grow. Cultivating rice was labor intensive and Africans that grew rice on the West Coast of Africa were brought to America as slaves. They helped develop the crop in the southern United States. Today the United States exports a large variety and quantity of rice.

For more information on the transatlantic slave trade:

Bananas: (Old World)


Bananas, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West, 1794, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F2131.E26.1794 rare.

Bananas, a native of Southeast Asia, are well suited to wet, tropical areas. They adapted well to the Caribbean and South American lowlands when they were introduced from the Canary Islands. They quickly became a staple crop of tropical America. Today the majority of bananas consumed in the United States and Europe are from the Americas.

Peanuts: (New World)


Map of West Africa, Tracts on Slave Trade, 1791, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, HT1033.F18 rare.

Peanuts, a native crop of South America, have been cultivated for over 2,000 years. The Spanish took them from South America back to Spain, and then Spanish traders introduced peanuts to West Africa. The plant was widely grown there and returned to America aboard slave ships. Do you know where the nickname for peanuts, “goober,” came from? It came from the Congo people’s name for them, “nguba.” Peanuts became an essential agricultural element in the sandy coastal soils of China where it played an important role in crop rotation when coupled with rice. In the 17th century, peanuts were introduced to the Virginia colony, but were considered a poor man’s food until the 1900s. In fact, Union soldiers took peanuts home after the Civil War, and they became snacks for the working class. In 1903, scientist George Washington Carver developed 300 uses for peanuts, including peanut butter. It might surprise you to know people in the United States did not eat very many peanuts until after World War II.

Beans: (Old World & New World)

Traditional dried beans were under cultivation in 2000 B.C. and have long been a staple of the Americas. The ancient Indian practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together was a simple but very effective cultivation technique. How does it work? Corn grows straight, beans grow around the stalk of corn, and squash covers the ground, preventing weed growth. Beans also have another advantage: fixing nitrogen into the soil. This essential process hastened their adoption by European, African, and Asian farmers who recognized the benefits of a food source that improved the soil. Often called “poor man’s meat,” American beans are particularly high in protein.

Cocoa: (New World)


Aztecs making chocolate for a principal god, Vitzilipuztli, The General History of the Vast Continent and Islands of America, Commonly call’d West-Indies, 1725-26, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E141.H59.1725 rare.


Making Chocolate in Mexico, America: Being the latest, and most Accurate Description of the New World; Containing The Original of the Inhabitants, and the Remarkable Voyages Thither, 1671, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E143.O35 over oversize rare.

Did you know chocolate comes from trees? Well, sort of. The fruit of the Cacao, a tropical South American tree, produces cocoa beans from which chocolate is made. It’s a valuable crop. Cocoa was cultivated for more than a thousand years in Mexico, and Christopher Columbus first encountered natives trading cocoa beans as money. It was not until Hernan Cortez met the Aztecs that the Spanish were introduced to chocolate. Aztecs mixed corn, ground cocoa beans, vanilla, chilies, and achiote (or annatto) seeds in hot water and stirred quickly, making a frothy drink. Achiote gives chocolate a reddish color. One of the early explorers wrote the following about Aztec chocolate making:


The Aztec emperor Montezuma reportedly drank between 44 to 50 cups of chocolate a day, America: Being the latest, and most Accurate Description of the New World; Containing The Original of the Inhabitants, and the Remarkable Voyages Thither, 1671, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E143.O35 over oversize rare.

“The Spaniards, to make chocolate, mix maize (by the mexicans call’d Tlaolli) either whole or ground, or boyl’d before with chalk, moreover, they put the red kernels also in the drink, which grow in the fruit of the Achiote-tree. Of the kernels, which are dry and cooling, boyl’d in water, and stirred till it comes to a pap, and takes away all rastes (???) that cause vomiting.” *From America: Being the latest, and Most Accurate Description of the New World; Containing The Original of the Inhabitants, and the Remarkable Voyages Thither*, by John Ogilby 1671. Cortez sent cocoa beans to Spain, and the Spanish added sugar to the drink. They also kept it a secret until 1606 when the Italians started drinking chocolate. Chocolate became a popular drink throughout Europe and the European colonies. In 1840, our enjoyment of chocolate resulted in the development of the chocolate bar. Today the majority of Cacao is grown in tropical Africa where it has become a major export crop. According to economists there will be a worldwide shortage of cocoa in the next ten years as the demand far exceeds supply.

Potato: (New World)

Native to the Andes Mountains of Peru, this South American staple was introduced to Europe in the 16th century where it was not well received. On the other hand, potatoes were introduced to North America in the 18th century, and they flourished in the northern latitudes. It was also the perfect crop for the cooler climates of Northern Europe, and by the 19th century the potato had become a staple of Germany, Russia, and Ireland. Potato cultivation enabled larger quantities of food to be produced per acre, playing a part in creating a population boom. In Ireland, it is estimated that the poorer classes ate up to 19 potatoes a day per person with little else in their diet. How would you like to only eat 19 potatoes every day? From 1845 to 1850, this reliance on the potato became a major problem when a fungus or blight attacked the potato crop. As potato plants died, there was widespread starvation, leading to the deaths of at least one million people in Europe. This also led to a major migration of famine-struck peoples to other countries, including the United States. Today, potatoes are still popular and it is estimated that every American eats 120 pounds of potatoes a year.

Maize: (New World)


Mexican women making bread from maize similar to the modern day tortilla, History of the New World: Shewing His (Girolamo Benzoni) Travels in America from A.D. 1541 to 1556, 1857, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E109.I8.B46.1857.

Corn—or maize—was the principle grain crop of the Americas. Originally cultivated in Mexico, by 3500 B.C. it had spread throughout the Americas. Christopher Columbus, acknowledging its importance in the New World, introduced it to Europe. Like potatoes, maize’s tremendous production enabled more grain to be grown per acre allowing populations to increase. To keep that production healthy, maize needed regular rainfall for ideal growth. In the semi-arid climates of the Mediterranean and Middle East, where rainy seasons were followed by drought, corn did not fare well and therefore it had little effect on their cultures. The cultivation of corn in Africa began soon after the exploration of the Americas. Regular rainfall there proved it to be a reliable crop and it was quickly adopted. By 1561, corn was being grown in East Africa; China, following suit, began cultivation in the 1550s.

Pineapple: (New World)

Probably first cultivated in the highlands of South America, pineapples were introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus. In the English colonies of Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and the Carolinas, pineapples were considered the symbol of hospitality because they were so difficult to produce (taking up to two years to grow), then ship north, and arrive fresh in North America. A truly wealthy host offered pineapple to his guests. Pineapple is cultivated today in the tropical and semi-tropical highlands of Brazil, China, and Mexico, but it is Hawaii that produces one-third of the world’s supply of pineapple.

Chili Peppers: (New World)

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The pepper plant, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West, 1794, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F2131.E26.1794 rare.

Christopher Columbus took native chilies, including hot and sweet peppers, back to Spain. A crewman wrote, “In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes, which make fruit as long as cinnamon, full of small grains as biting as (Asian) pepper; those Caribs and the Indians eat that fruit like we eat apples.” By 1569, over 20 varieties of pepper had been adapted to the Spanish climate. Today, chilies are found in all cultures of the world. Paprika, a Hungarian staple, is an example of this adaptation.

Cassava/Manioc: (New World)


The Manioc plant, The History, Civil and Commerical, of the British Colonies in the West, 1794, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F2131.E26.1794 rare.

The root called cassava in the West Indies and manioc in Brazil is native to the tropical Americas. Cassava is an important food in areas where corn and potatoes will not grow. This large plant has shoots and young leaves that are edible, but its root is the staple product. It’s so important because it grows in areas with soil too poor to support other crops. How is it used? The roots are cooked and dried then crushed into a powder. Have you ever eaten tapioca pudding? Cassava is used to make tapioca, farina and cassava bread. The starch of the root is referred to as arrowroot, another useful ingredient in cooking. The plant was exported to places like Africa where it has become an important food source.

Tobacco: (New World)


Tobacco plant, Tobacologia, 1622, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, RM666.T6.N3 rare.


Harvesting wild tobacco, Tobacologia, 1622, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, RM666.T6.N3 rare.

Christopher Columbus wrote that the natives of San Salvador “drank smoke.” What an intriguing description and what a way for the Europeans to learn about tobacco. It was smoked through a small pipe called a “tobago,” and it became known as “tobacco.” Originally consumed for its medicinal qualities, tobacco soon spread throughout the Americas. The Spanish began to grow tobacco in their American colonies and export it to the rest of Europe. Europeans quickly became addicted to tobacco. Spain controlled the monopoly on tobacco until John Rolfe, of the Virginia Colony, sent a shipment of tobacco back to England in 1619. From that point on, English colonies such as Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina grew tobacco and supplied Europe. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop and its production became a driving force in the importation of slaves to the North American colonies.

For more information on the transatlantic slave trade:

Tomato: (New World)

Native to the Andes of South America, this bright red fruit (That’s right, it’s a fruit, not a vegetable!) was originally shunned by Europeans who thought it to be poisonous. Eventually, tomatoes became accepted and American colonists began growing them, even consuming more tomatoes than their European cousins. Today, they are grown worldwide and are an essential source of vitamin A and C. Imagine Italian cooking before the tomato! Italians did not add the tomato to their cooking until the 1860s.

Allspice: (NEW WORLD)

Allspice was the one true spice that Christopher Columbus brought back from the New World. A fruit that resembles a peppercorn, allspice was discovered in the West Indies growing on the island known today as Jamaica. Attempts were made to grow allspice in other parts of the world, but they were not successful. Allspice combines the fragrance and flavor of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Today, it is still primarily grown in Jamaica.

Cinnamon: (OLD WORLD)

Do you know where the cinnamon stick in your hot apple cider comes from? Cinnamon is harvested from a tree native to Sri Lanka and India that grows near the ocean. The tree has a double bark and the inner section is “cinnamon.” That inner bark is dried in the sun until it has rolled up and become a light brown color. This was one of the very first spices early European explorers attempted to find in the 15th century. The Portuguese, then the Dutch in 1636, controlled Sri Lanka and cultivated the cinnamon groves there. They also controlled the price. When the English East India Company took control of Sri Lanka in 1796, they set the price for cinnamon. Today, Sri Lanka is the principal cinnamon-producing country in the world, but it is also grown in Java, India, and the Seychelles.

Cloves: (OLD WORLD)

Cloves, the flower buds from clove trees, are a spice grown on the Isle of Amboina in the Moluccas Islands. The buds are dried to a dark brown hue to prevent them from decaying. The word “clove” comes from the French word “clou” meaning nail; cloves are so named because of their resemblance to small nails. Cloves were first recorded in ancient China where members of the court could not speak to the emperor without a clove in his or her mouth. Why? It freshened the breath. Cloves were used as medicine for toothaches or upset stomachs as well. Today, cloves are also grown in Zanzibar and in Madagascar.

Ginger: (Old World & New World)


The Manioc plant, The History, Civil and Commerical, of the British Colonies in the West, 1794, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F2131.E26.1794 rare.

Ginger is indigenous to India and China, and has been cultivated in Asia for 3,000 years. It’s made its way, though, to many places, helped, in part, because the root is easy to transport and to cultivate. The Arabs introduced it to East Africa, the Portuguese to West Africa, and the Spanish and Portuguese to the West Indies and Central America. Ginger is marketed in two forms: preserved green or dried and cured. There are also two varieties of ginger: black ginger with skin, and white ginger without skin. Wild ginger was found growing in America and the natives used it to flavor hominy grits. Ginger was also used as a “warming” medicine to warm upset stomachs.

Nutmeg/Mace: (OLD WORLD)

This valuable crop, with 80 species of nutmeg trees and bushes, blooms and bears fruit year round. The fruit is picked when it is fully ripe and the outer husk is removed. The inner husk, which is red in color, is dried separately to make a spice called mace. The seed inside is also dried to create nutmeg. Nutmeg was used in ancient China and traveled on caravans to Europe. In the 1620s, the Dutch controlled the cultivation and production of nutmeg. How? They soaked the nutmeg in lye to kill the germ and prevent anyone else from growing a nutmeg tree. Today, it is grown in the Suriname, West Indies, the Island of Penang, and the Banda Islands.

Pepper: (OLD WORLD)

Pepper, above all other spices, was the most valuable to Europeans. In fact, an ounce of pepper could be traded for an ounce of gold. Pepper was popular even in Roman times, and it was traded in the Roman Empire. When Rome fell to the Goths in 408 A.D., as a tribute, the Goth King demanded gold, silver, and 3,000 pounds of pepper. Of course, Europeans used pepper as it was intended, to flavor their food, but also, in an age before refrigeration, to help preserve their meat. Vasco da Gama’s main goal in finding an easier sea route to the east was to bring back pepper.

What is pepper, exactly? It’s the fruit of a shrub that grew wild in the Malabar district on the West Coast of India. Today, 80% of the world’s pepper is grown in the Netherlands’ Indies. Most of it is now cultivated on plantations where shrubs are grown from seeds or cuttings. Drying unripe berries until they are black makes black pepper. Grinding only the seeds taken from the berry makes white pepper.

Vanilla: (NEW WORLD)

Think of the fragrance of vanilla. It only seems fitting that it comes from a beautiful flower, doesn’t it? Vanilla, the seedpod of an orchid, is a spice originating in the tropical rainforests of Central America. Because of the popularity and profits associated with vanilla, Mexico developed a monopoly on growing the beans until 1841. It is now produced as well in Madagascar, the Comoro Islands, and Reunim where the French and the Dutch introduced it.

Tahiti and Hawaii are also becoming major vanilla producers. Surprisingly, the vanilla bean has no flavor until the beans are warmed and put into a “sweatbox” to ferment. Because valuable beans have been stolen off the vine, they are branded using a cork with sharp pins. But even with these efforts, there is not enough real vanilla to fill the need for the popular flavoring in the United States alone. That’s why most vanilla-flavored products we eat are made from synthetic vanilla developed in 1874.