Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The produce department.

(Nothing going on. Plant freak post. I once did a paper on this.)

International cuisine. Fusion cooking. Cross-cultural foods. Lately, we've been acting like this is a new idea, a big deal, something really clever. I'm afraid I sneer about this because, as I've said before, the human race has been doing international cuisine for five, seven thousand years. As soon as we domesticated food crops, and realized we could grow them where we wanted, on purpose, we began passing foods along the trade and migration routes, taking them with us when we moved on to new places. So nearly nothing we eat is native to where we live. (Canoe plants are a great example of this, and a fine topic for a blog post another day.) From a plant freak point of view, the produce department of the grocery store cheers me up every time I walk through. It's fascinating, amazing, the amount of plants from all over the world, grown and gathered in one place. So, for fun, here are some of the more popular things from the produce department, and where they're from. (And in most cases, what they are.)

-Carrots are native to the area now called Afghanistan, though they've been seriously domesticated - bred to be larger, and orange. They were originally purple. They're also fairly recent as these things go, the current, 'modern' orange carrot being bred in Europe in the middle ages. The part we eat is technically the tap root. The greens are kinda toxic.

-Onions are on the opposite end of the domestication scale - they've been found in bronze age settlements, and on back about five thousand years. No one's quite sure where they're native to (they're that old), but probably somewhere in central Asia. The part we eat is part of the underground STEM, not the root. Those layers you peel off? Specialized leaves.

-Celery was found in the tomb of King Tut, the leaves used as garlands to (presumably) decorate it. This is another one so old we're not sure where it's from, but again, likely somewhere in the middle east or central Asia. It was very popular with the ancient Greeks. The parts we eat are the petioles (leaf stems), root (tap root) and seeds that are really super-small fruits.

-Tomatoes are native to S America; they are a new world food. There is argument over who brought them back to the old world, but the first literary mention of them in Europe is in an Italian herbal written in 1544. (Before that, the Italians ate something else on their pasta.) Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family, and were recognized as nightshades when they appeared in Europe; that's where all the uproar came from, with people arguing over whether they were toxic. The red fruits, which we eat, are not. But the green parts of the plant are toxic.

-Apples are native to central Asia, like so much else. The domestication of them (and many other related fruit trees) had to wait until mankind invented grafting. Apples do not 'breed true' and so you cannot grow new apple trees from the apple seeds. (Or rather, you can, but they won't be the same apples. They are a genetic crapshoot.) I've discussed apples before. They're a cloned crop, with all the problems that come with that.

-Lettuce (iceberg lettuce, not the fancy stuff) is related to daisies and is native to central Asia again. (All of these really old veggies are native to somewhere in Eurasia, but they got passed around the trade routes so early, we aren't sure about any of them.) We eat the leaves, that grow in a rosette formation, botanically speaking. The sap/latex of the plant contains compounds that act like mild opioids, but you've got to let the plant mature to get any real amounts out of it. The fresh, young leaves like we eat are pretty boring, chemically speaking.

-Bananas are native to tropical SE Asia. They are a fruit (look closely; that brown 'vein' that runs down the middle? There are seeds in there) from the world's largest herb. (Botanical geekiness - banana 'trees' have no secondary meristems, meaning no woody growth, meaning they are technically an herb and not a tree.) They're also another cloned crop.

-Artichokes are thistles native to southern Europe. The 'head' is in fact an unopened flower bud. The 'choke', the nasty bit in the center you can't eat? That's the thistle part.

-Cucumbers are fruits native to India. They've been cultivated for at least three thousand years, and had to be bred to remove some bitter compounds. They're a member of the same family as gourds and squash, cucurbitaceae.

-Potatoes are fleshy tubers native to S America. They are members of the nightshade family (like tomatoes) and had to be bred to be edible; the green parts are still extremely toxic and a few people die every year, eating the greens. There is academic argument over these, but genetic analysis shows that potatoes are cultivated for at least ten thousand years. (Which blows a lot of theorized time-lines for settlement of the New World, but the historians need to get over it.)

-Okra is native to tropical W Africa, and was brought to the new world with the slave trade. The part eaten is a fruit, and the plant is related to hibiscus, cotton, and marsh mallow.

-Kiwi are fruits (of course, you can see the seeds easily), native to China. They're related to gooseberries, and were just recently cultivated in large amounts, starting in the twentieth century.

-Cabbage has been discussed around here before, but real, actual, in-a-head cabbage is native to the Mediterranean area.

-Yams are, apparently, native to both Africa and Asia. They have many cultivars (closely related varieties), so it's possible each place domesticated a different cultivar. They've been grown in both places for about eight thousand years. Like potatoes, the part you eat is the fleshy tuber.

-Sweet potatoes are smaller and yellower than yams (there's lots of confusion between the two in the US) and related to morning glories. These are native to tropical S America. And like the others, you eat the fleshy tuberous root.

-Chili peppers (jalapeno, habanero, etc) are all native to C America, no one's quite sure where. All the different varieties/cultivars come from a single species. Technically the peppers are berries. Bell peppers are just another cultivar. These were one of the first plants from the new world to make a big impact in the old world; within a hundred years of the discovery of the new world, peppers had spread worldwide. Which, for the era, was lightning fast.

-Broccoli is in fact a variety/cultivar of cabbage. It's native to Europe. Those funky heads (the little trees) are unopened flower heads.

-Cauliflower is a group of white cultivars of cabbage. Like broccoli, it's the flower head you're eating. There are Asian and European varieties.

-Oranges (and other citrus) are trees native to SE Asia. Technically the fruit is a type of berry, if we're gonna get botanically technical. They were introduced to Europe after/during the crusades.

So I'll stop here, at least for now. Maybe one of these days I'll inventory the local grocery store and take it from there. Or maybe I'll do my spice rack.


Michelle in Colorado Springs said...

Thanks! This was a cool post. I knew about the carrots and apples but everything else was new to me.

knitting it up said...

Love this post! Thank you :D

Rooie said...

So why weren't you at our Thanksgiving table? My family had a discussion of potato, yam and sweet potato origins, but we were all too full of food to get up from the table and do any research.

Anonymous said...

I am still confused as to the difference between sweet potatoes and yams.

Probabaly because I don't eat either of them.


LOL verification word FATTA

Barbara said...

Thanks for the plant info. I didn't know that about apples. Pretty darned cool.

I vote for spices next. I'm guessing that they are fascinating.

GrillTech said...

Most of the items listed have Asian and/or African origins. So what did we in North America contribute?

Donna Lee said...

I think I saw some purple carrots recently and thought maybe they were a new variety. Maybe they're a very old variety that someone is trying to resurrect.

Alwen said...


Chandra the Crazed Quilter said...

Awesome. Thank you! I never knew any of that stuff and it's really kind of neat. I am edumacated!