Global Perspectives on Fast-Food History
Very few of the products that we eat originated or were domesticated in the United States. So how did these foods arrive here? Many food products originated in the Middle East and Asia. For instance, pepper and many spices are grown only in India and Southeast Asia. Many spices continue to be imported into the United States.
In turn, many Asian foods could be grown in the Mediterranean or Western European climates. Many Asian foods were introduced into Europe in prehistoric times. Food products consumed in antiquity by Egyptians, Greeks and Romans including bread (wheat), cheese, lettuce, pickle (cucumber), beef, vinegar, chicken eggs, olive oil, and mustard. As Europeans colonized the New World during the 16th century, these products were imported into what is today the United States. None of these products were found in the New World prior to European colonization. All of these products are grown in the United States today, although speciality items are imported.
Another way in which Asian foods arrived in the United States was through the Caribbean. For instance, sugarcane originated in Southeast Asia, and was introduced into India 2,500 years ago. From India sugar was introduced to Persia (today Iran) by 600 CE. Moslem Arabs introduced sugar into the Mediterranean region and to southern Italy and Spain. Europeans introduced sugarcane to the Atlantic Islands, and European explorers, beginning with Columbus, introduced sugar into the Caribbean. The major reason for the expansion of slavery in the New World was to provide labor for the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and Latin America. Today, the United States imports about 50 percent of its sugar needs. Except in Hawaii and Louisiana, domestic production is based on sugar beets, not sugarcane.
Other products came from Africa. The kola nut, for instance, was introduced from Africa to the Caribbean during the 19th century. There is no production of kola nuts in the United States; all kola nuts or related products are imported from Africa or the Caribbean. Other African foods introduced into the United States include the watermelon and okra, a major component in gumbo.
Still other products originated in South America and Mesoamerica. The tomatoes on the hamburger or in the ketchup originated in South America, but were domesticated in Mesoamerica. It is likely that the Spanish first introduced tomatoes into what is today the United States in their colonies in St. Augustine (Florida), Santa Fe (New Mexico), and California. Tomatoes were later also introduced by immigrants from France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and by slaves from the Caribbean. Potatoes originated and were domesticated in South America, and were introduced by the Spanish in Europe. From Europe, potatoes were brought to British colonies in North America. Other important New World foods had already been disseminated into North America before the arrival of Europeans. These include corn (maize), squash, beans, and turkey, all staple food sources for many Native Americans.
Salt is technically not a food, but it is necessary for human survival. Salt was mined and traded in prehistoric times. It was important for the preservation of food and later for manufacturing gun powder. Salt was mined in several locations in the United States; many salting operations were launched using salt water from the ocean. As salt is contained in many processed foods, most of us consume too much salt which leads to health complications. High levels of salt are found in cheeseburgers.