Bonus Lesson: Many People, Many Plates

This bonus lesson can be used as a final performance of understanding for the Gathering, Gardening, and Agriculture curriculum or as a separate lesson. Students explore the origins of plant foods and the mechanisms by which they came to be common ingredients in the foods we eat today. By mapping their food, students learn about geography, trade, and history, and see the immediate effects of colonization and cross-cultural interactions, as related to plant use.

Map of the world
Lesson Background Information

In discussions of exploration and colonization, historians often refer to different parts of the world as the “Old World” and the “New World.” The “Old World” refers to Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia and the “New World” refers to the Americas (North, Central, and South America). Scholars recognize that the European explorers did not discover a “new” world, but places and people who had lived on this continent for thousands of years. Yet viewing the world from the European perspective offers a way to see colonialism and the Columbian Exchange as important historical processes.

Columbus, early explorers, and later colonial settlers wanted to establish new fields of plenty in the Americas. On his later voyages, Columbus brought crops he hoped might flourish there. He and his followers brought the familiar food grains of Europe: wheat, barley, and rye. They also brought Mediterranean plantation crops such as sugar, bananas, and citrus fruits, which all originated in South or Southeast Asia. At first, many of these crops fared poorly, but eventually they flourished.

Establishing these crops in the “new” world offered some people the economic incentive of landownership and resulted in new social organization. Colonialism is the practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. It involves the establishment of colonies that administer state control, manage interactions, and extract labor, raw materials, and surplus. This large scale process resulted in cross-cultural interchanges, which are often referred to as the Columbian Exchange. This interchange of people, cultures, plants, animals, and diseases between the Americas, Europe, and Africa dramatically altered lifeways globally.

As English, Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish, French, and German peoples began to settle in the new colonies in the Americas, peoples with diverse backgrounds interacted and created new cultures and lifeways in the Americas. To support this agrarian economy, the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade brought peoples of diverse African cultures from various geographic locations on the West African coast and West Central Africa to labor in the Americas. These European and African peoples met Native Americans with differing cultural traditions. So the cultures that formed in the southeastern United States were not related to a single African, Native American or European culture, but to a diverse mix of cultures and languages of peoples from varying environments. From these different landscapes, people brought disease, plants, and animals as well as diverse cultural traditions and an array of foodways.

The Columbian Exchange also turned plants into commodities. After 1640, sugar became the mainstay of the Caribbean and Brazilian economies, becoming the foundation for large enslaved societies. The production of rice and cotton, both imported in the Columbian Exchange, together with tobacco, formed the basis of slave society in the United States. Wheat, which thrived in the temperate latitudes of North and South America and in the highlands of Mexico, became a fundamental food crop for tens of millions of people in the Americas. These crops drastically changed the economy of the Americas and supported the European settler societies and their African slave systems.

Slave communities developed out of interactions among those in bondage and between slaves and slave owners. The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade shaped the southeastern United States through the people it forced to migrate, and the women who gave birth to the children who formed the new African-American population. As more children were born to the enslaved laborers on plantations, and the western frontier opened up, the Carolinas and the Chesapeake became exporters of slaves in an internal slave trade within the United States.

The Columbian Exchange, and the interaction between different people in a particular place allows us to see history in our food. Think about barbecue, it is an American culinary tradition that varies by region: sauce or no sauce; which kind of sauce – vinegar, mustard, or tomato based; chopped or not chopped; whole animal or just ribs or shoulders. Some researchers attribute its origins to enslaved Africans with inspiration and contributions from Native Americans. Some assign its origins to Native Americans and Europeans. The origin of the word is said to derive from both Carib and Spanish (barbacoa – to roast over hot coals on a wooden framework) or from western European sources (barbe-aqueue in French – “head to tail”). And still others attribute the innovation of barbecue to the Germans and Czechs. The word barbecue also has roots in West Africa among the Hausa, who used the term, babbake, to describe a complex of words referring to grilling, toasting, building a large fire, singeing hair or feathers, and cooking food over a long period of time over an extravagant fire. With this example, it is easy to see how colonial encounters and the African slave trade shaped the foods eaten in the southeastern United States.

As enslaved African Americans became the pit masters on southern plantations, barbecue became a rich amalgamation of African, Native American, and European foodways. The origin of plant food traditions is no less complicated. For instance, enslaved Africans introduced the cowpea, commonly referred to as a field pea or black-eyed pea, to the American colonies during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when many African foods came into the Americas. Archeological evidence points to its cultivation in enslaved communities in the mid-18th century. Creek Muskogee Indians also adopted cowpeas, which were grown in their towns in the 18th and 19th centuries.

On Southern plantations, the enslaved barbecued the meat and prepared the meals for the main house. They also gardened, hunted, and prepared their own meals. The enslaved brought plants, like cowpeas, and their traditional recipes to create a novel foodways system that illustrates their ability to pool knowledge and resources, develop strategies for assuring some level of autonomy in their lives, and construct their cultural identity. These food traditions shaped the diets of people in the southeastern United States today.

Similarly, the America’s also contributed to Afro-Eurasia in terms of new plant species and cuisine and transformed life in places as far apart as Ireland, South Africa, and China. In previous lessons, students learned about Native American domestication of corn, squash, and beans. In South and Central America, native peoples domesticated corn, potato, cassava, various beans and squashes, sweet potato, papaya, pineapple, tomato, avocado, guava, peanuts, chili peppers, and cacao, the raw form of cocoa. Within 20 years of Columbus’s last voyage, people established corn in North Africa. It spread to Egypt, where it became a staple in the Nile Delta, and from there to the Ottoman Empire, especially the Balkans. By 1800, corn was the major grain in large parts of what is now Romania and Serbia, and was also important in Hungary, Ukraine, Italy, and southern France. It was often used as animal feed, but people ate it too, usually in a porridge or bread. Corn appeared in China in the 16th century and eventually supplied about one-tenth of the grain supply there. Corn probably played its greatest role, however, in southern Africa. There corn arrived in the 16th century in the context of the slave trade. The southern African environmental conditions suited corn handsomely.

Despite corn’s success, the potato, which originates in South America, probably had a stronger impact in improving the food supply and in promoting population growth in Eurasia. The potato thrived in Ireland, where it promoted a rapid population increase until a potato blight ravaged the crop in 1845, bringing widespread famine to the area. After 1750, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, and Russia also gradually accepted the potato, which helped drive a general population explosion in Europe. This population explosion may have laid the foundation for world-shaking developments such as the Industrial Revolution and modern European imperialism.

While corn and potatoes had the greatest world historical importance of the American crops, lesser crops made their marks as well. In West Africa, peanuts and cassava provided new foodstuffs. Cassava, a tropical shrub native to Brazil, has starchy roots that grow in almost any soil. In the leached soils of West and Central Africa, cassava became an indispensable crop. Today, some 200 million Africans rely on it as their main source of nutrition. Cacao and rubber, two South American crops, became important export items in West Africa in the 20th century. The sweet potato, which was introduced into China in the 1560s, became China’s third most important crop after rice and wheat. It proved a useful supplement to diets throughout the monsoon lands of Asia. Indeed, almost everywhere in the world, one or another American food crops caught on, complementing existing crops or, more rarely, replacing them. By the late 20th century, about onethird of the world’s food supply came from plants first cultivated in the Americas. The modern rise of population would have been slower without them.

Colonization and the Columbian Exchange re-shaped the world. It increased people’s economic dependency on a few commodities like sugar, rice, and cotton. It also created unequal terms of trade that favored the European colonizers resulting in social hierarchies and inequality that were institutionalized through slavery. Much of the foods people in the United States eat on a regular basis are the direct result of long complex historical processes. For example, what we think of as “Italian cuisine” is in fact very American at its core, because it relies on plants, such as tomatoes and bell peppers, that were introduced to Europeans about 500 years ago. Few of the ingredients from a typical “Italian style” dinner originate in Italy, or Europe. These foods are the result of hundreds, and even thousands, of years of exchange, trade, and movement of people. Food is not only nutrition; it is culture and history.

New and Old World Plants

“New World”

North America Sunflowers Corn (Mexico) Avacados
Central America Peppers Beans Chocolate
South America Potatoes Tomatoes Peanuts

“Old World”

Europe Beets Cabbage
Asia Rice Apples Sugarcane Bananas Peas Carrots
Africa Watermelon Coffee Cow Peas
Middle East Wheat Onion
Class Materials

For each group: A world map; “The Columbian Exchange” activity sheet; the “Origins of Plants” table; 5-10 cards from the “Old and New World Plants Cards”; and the “Hoppin John Recipe”.

For the teacher: A world map and “A School Lunch Menu” to project; a copy of the “Old and New World Plants Table” and “The Brief History of Plants” table.

Key Terms

Columbian Exchange: An exchange of people, plants, animals, and diseases between the Americas, Europe, and Africa that dramatically altered lifeways globally.

Plantation economy: An economy based on agricultural mass production in which a few commodity crops are grown on large farms called plantations by enslaved labor.

Trade: The exchange of a good or service for goods, service, or currency.

Trans Atlantic Slave Trade: The business or process of procuring, transporting, and selling millions of Africans to the American continent, creating an economic system in which the principles of property law were applied to humans shaping the world economy in the 18th century

Activities for Lesson

1. Ask the students: Have you tried a food from another country? If this does not gain any responses, ask more generally if they have been introduced to a new food or candy bar. Discuss whether the students adopted this new food into their diet and why. People are likely to adopt new foods out of necessity or because they are similar to familiar foods.

1. Project the map of the world from Lesson Five and review the nomenclature for “Old” and “New” World. Project the modern world map and make sure students understand that Columbus really discovered another “Old” world, since people have been living in the Americas for thousands of years. When historians use the dichotomy of “New” and “Old” worlds, they put them in quotation marks to show that they are using the way of thinking from 1492, the age of exploration.

2. Draw a table on the board with one side marked as “Old World” and the other “New World.

3. Engage the students by asking them what fruits or vegetables are indigenous to the “New World” or the Americas (North, Central, and South). If/when they get stumped have them reflect on the cuisines of the “New World” regions that they learned in Lesson Five. Gradually fill in the “New World” list with the help of student suggestions and the “New and Old World Plants Table”.

4. Review the Background information, explain the concepts: Columbian Exchange, colonialism, trade, and Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, and help students add the terms to the Key Terms log.

5. Using the projected map of the world, explain that spaces in the classroom represent different regions of the world.

6. Distribute 5 to 10 “Old and New World Plant Cards” to each group of three or four students. Have students take time to determine where each plant originated using the “Origin of Plants Table.”

7. Have students move around the world and place the plants in the part of the world in which they originated.

8. When all of the cards have been placed, pass out the “The Columbian Exchange” activity sheet.

9. Ask the students to fill in the “Old” and “New” World chart and review the plants that are indigenous to each region.

1. Now that everyone can visualize the state of the world in 1492, have students think back to the Columbian voyage and imagine a “world” of Europeans who had never tasted tomatoes, potatoes, or beans and Native Americans who had never seen wheat or tasted bread and
pasta. Stress the tremendous nature of the historical influence of this Columbian Exchange – economically, socially, and environmentally.

2. Identify six important plants: potatoes, sugar, corn, tomatoes, collard greens, and coffee. Using the summaries in “The Brief History of Plants Table,” have students consider the historical scope of each crop one by one and have a student walk from the continent of origin to the other continents that have a historical connection to that food since the voyage of Columbus. To encourage thought as to where the plant went, ask students about what the cuisine is like in different countries.

1. Ask students: How did the Columbian Exchange shaped your foodways?

2. Project the “A School Lunch Menu” and have the students map the origins of the plants in the school lunch on the “The Columbian Exchange” activity sheet.

3. Have students select one of the plants from the menu and have them move to the region of the world in which it originated. Continue as long as there are different plants from “A School Lunch Menu.” Discuss the students observations, inferences, and conclusions about their school lunch encouraging them to think about what plants can reveal about culture and history.

4. Ask students: How are your foodways similar or different from gatherers, gardeners, and agriculturalists? How are the ways students get food similar or different? After students have participated in the re-enactment of the global consequences of the Columbian Exchange and examined their school lunch, lead a discussion of the larger implications of the movement of plants around the world. Ask the questions: Can these plants (coffee, for example) grow in the places where they have ended up as a result of trade? (Coffee requires a sub-tropical climate to grow).  If not, how do these countries get it?  Before the Columbian Exchange, how did people get food? Where did it come from? How does production of this crop affect local communities? (People are growing food for export rather than for their own consumption and many people have no idea where their food comes from).  What are the environmental impacts of trading food globally? (Ships, trucks and fuel, processing, distribution, refrigeration.)

1. If there is time, in groups, students should come up with a creative way (a skit, a song, a poem, or a dance, for example) to teach their classmates about the Columbian Exchange, the movement of a particular plant, and how it has impacted current foodways.

2. Pass out the “Hoppin John Recipe” for students to take home and make with their parents.

Optional Assessment- Writing Prompt: Why are plant foods important? What can archeologists learn about people in the past by looking at artifacts and seeds? How are your foodways similar or different from foragers, gardeners, and agriculturalists? How is your diet a result of thousands of years of history? Make sure to use the words from your Key Terms log.