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Original Globe-Trotters: Tomatoes, Coffee And Pepper

Original varieties of tomatoes from South America are believed to have been small, like today's cherry tomatoes. Today's large, plump tomatoes are the result of years of selection. (Getty Images)

All fans of food, facts and geography should consider viewing this Food Chains map, put together by Haisam Hussein for Lapham's Quarterly. If you're into coffee, tomatoes and black pepper, you have little choice but to check it out.

The map shows the far-flung origins of this well-loved food trio — and how their successful spread around the world was due to both trading and imperial conquest.

Since we're getting into tomato season for most of the country, I'll focus on the fruit that passes for a vegetable. Here are a few highlights from the map:

  • The origins of ketchup include a briny paste developed in China in 1690. A decade later, British sailors brought it back home from Malaysia. Years later, Americans added tomatoes to the recipe, and a star was born. By 1896, it was America's national condiment.
  • The first tomato spotted in British North America was in South Carolina, around 1700. The map says it was possibly brought over from England, but in my opinion, you can't ignore its origins in South America.
  • In 1984, NASA started its plan to disseminate 12 million tomato seeds — not just any seeds, but potentially SPACE-MUTATED seeds. Six years later, the plan got the agency in trouble when it sought to distribute the seeds to American classrooms.

The map also lists empires built partly on pepper: Rome, Venice, Portugal, Holland and Britain. And it claims that a French naval officer introduced coffee plants to the West Indies in 1723 — which makes sense, at least sense of the gastro-logical variety.

And looking back from 2011, you realize how random it all is: A straggly plant or a handful of seeds survive a trip halfway around the world, and that changes the culinary history of a town, a country, a part of the world.

All of this info also prompts a question: What if people in 1500s Italy had rejected tomatoes as not being traditional, or local, enough?

Update: To learn more about tomatoes, especially how they fared in the era of industrial farming, check out Fresh Air host Terry Gross's interview with Barry Estabrook, author of the book Tomatoland.

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