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Food Coming to Us From Around the World
Our food comes not only from local farms and fields but also from 170 countries around the world. Fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish are rushed to us by jet planes, ships, and trucks. The selection is big, the origins ever more exotic, and nothing is out
Senior writer Larry Van Dyne grew up on a small Missouri farm surrounded by cattle, hogs, corn, and soybeans. His most recent article was on the Metro subway system.
Had the Whole Foods Market near Dupont Circle existed in Thomas Jefferson's time, the President might have enjoyed walking the few blocks from the White House to shop for his evening meal.
It would have been irresistible. An admirer of French cookery and an innovative horticulturist, Jefferson was ever curious about how food was cooked, where it came from, and how it was produced.
In his gardens and orchards at Monticello, Jefferson tried everything—peaches, apples, strawberries, eggplant, tomatoes, peas, broccoli from Italy, figs from France, peppers from Mexico. While minister to France he fell in love with macaroni, had a couple of crates shipped home, and when those ran out he imported America's first pasta extruder from Naples. In 1802, he caused a stir at a White House dinner by serving the novelty we know as French fries.
Jefferson was so interested in food that he made a habit during his presidency of visiting Washington's market to study the seasonal availability of fresh vegetables. His observations, laid out in a neatly penned chart, covered lettuce, parsley, spinach, radishes, cabbage, cucumbers, and many others. You could buy asparagus from April 6 to June 16, and the strawberry season ran from May 8 to July 9.
One can only imagine Jefferson's delight to find strawberries now available nearly every day of the year in area supermarkets. The magic of modern food production and distribution makes the produce section a year-round wonder. For a man who lived in a time when fruits and vegetables were at the mercy of the local climate, in a time before refrigerated trucks and air cargo, today's supermarket would be something to behold.
He'd see that French fries now come frozen in plastic bags, that macaroni is just one of three dozen pastas, that there are breads baked from a dozen grains, and that there's a wide selection of herbal teas, European cheeses, fresh olives, and much more. He would see innovations from the late 19th century like breakfast cereal and peanut butter as well as piles of fruits like pineapples and bananas that were rare in his day. What might he think of more recent inventions like microwavable popcorn, low-carb pretzels, soybeans masquerading as meat, low-calorie frozen dinners, and bottles of water from France, Italy, Iceland, and Fiji?
If he were curious about where the thousands of products in an average supermarket come from, he'd mostly be out of luck. Markets are better about revealing a food's origin than they used to be, and Whole Foods does a better job than others, but tracing a food back through the supply chain to its starting point isn't easy.
Advertising often doesn't help. Grey Poupon Dijon mustard may look like a French import, but it's actually made near Allentown, Pennsylvania. Le Sueur peas, with the French fleur-de-lis on the can, come from Le Sueur, Minnesota. Labels often aren't much help, giving only the address of a distributor's warehouse. The federal government has proposed that all food be labeled with its country of origin, but the requirement has been delayed for everything except fish and seafood by opposition from supermarkets and big food companies.
The origins of some foods are not mysterious. Yes, pineapples come from Hawaii and maple syrup from Vermont. Potatoes grow in Idaho, lettuce in California, and peanuts in Georgia. Salmon comes from the waters off Alaska and lobsters from Maine. In Wisconsin, they do not wear those foam-rubber cheese heads just because they are so stylish.
But there are surprises. California has 500,000 more milk cows than Wisconsin, and it produces 15 times more fresh peaches than Georgia, the Peach State. More than half of the country's mushrooms come from around the little Pennsylvania town of Kennett Square, southwest of Philadelphia. We now import more garlic from China than we buy from growers in California. Only a quarter of the blue crabs harvested in the United States come from the Chesapeake Bay.
Jefferson probably would be amazed too at how much of our food comes from abroad—a trend propelled by consumer demand for year-round availability, faster transportation via refrigerated ships and jets, and the spread of free trade. US imports of food edge closer each year to matching our exports.
Importing food is nothing new—Jefferson got his coffee beans from the East and West Indies. But the variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, meat, and seafood that now comes from abroad is unprecedented. You'll find lamb from New Zealand, mangoes and limes from Mexico, shrimp from Vietnam, berries and grapes from Chile, salmon from Iceland, papayas from Belize, oranges from Spain. Even the flowers: Tulips just came into Dulles last night by air cargo from the Netherlands.
Where Apples, Oranges, and AllThat Good Fresh Fruit Is Grown
Eve may have given the apple a bad reputation, but it has long been the best-selling fruit in the world. Just over half of American-grown apples come from Washington state, where orchards line the banks of rivers in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. The lava-ash soil, irrigation with cool mountain water, and plentiful sunshine are just right. Apples also thrive in other northern climates, including New York (second in production), Michigan (third), and such nearby states as Pennsylvania (fourth), Virginia (sixth), and West Virginia (ninth).
The top-selling apple varieties are Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, McIntosh, Rome Beauty, Stayman, York, and Granny Smith. The green Granny Smith—named for a 19th-century Australian woman who developed it—has become a star of the produce section. Grannies make up about one-eighth of the crop in Washington state.
The orange, once so rare and expensive that it was consumed only on holidays, is the big seller among citrus fruits. Florida produces more than three-fourths of the US crop, with the rest coming from California, Arizona, and Texas. More than 90 percent of Florida's oranges go into juice. Using techniques developed in the 1940s, machines extract the juice of 500 oranges a minute, remove most of the water, and transform it into frozen concentrate. It's then put into 55-gallon drums and shipped to plants, often dairies, where water is restored and the reconstituted juice goes into cartons.
Most American grapefruits also come from Florida, while California dominates the lemon market. Florida was the main source of limes until a couple of years ago, when the state's groves had to be destroyed after an infestation of citrus canker; most of our limes now are imported from Mexico. California's lemons were brought there by Franciscan monks and are mostly grown in the southern part of the state. Limes were carried on long ship voyages to prevent scurvy, which results from a deficiency of vitamin C—that's how British sailors came to be known as "limeys." Lemons played a similar role during the California gold rush of the 1850s, when prospectors headed off on long trips were willing to pay $1 a lemon for their juice (about $17 today).
Georgia earned its designation as the Peach State in the decades after the Civil War, when growers hauled fresh peaches from Augusta by wagon, sent them downriver on small boats to Savannah, then by steamship to New York. The sweet Elberta variety, named after a grower's wife, gave Georgia another advantage, and by 1928 the state was producing 8 million bushels a year. It now produces just over 2 million bushels a year, about the same as neighboring South Carolina but far less than the 32 million bushels grown in California. Two-thirds of the California total consists of cling peaches, the variety preferred for canning and fruit cocktail. California also leads the country in nectarines and apricots.
With its thriving wine industry, California is by far the country's leading producer of grapes. About half the grapes are made into wine, just under 40 percent are marketed in dried form as raisins, and only about 12 percent are sold as table grapes. The drying of grapes into raisins has an ancient history. Phoenicians and Armenians traded raisins with the Greeks and Romans, who used them to decorate places of worship, as prizes in sporting events, and as troop rations. Armenian immigrants played a big role in starting the raisin industry in California, which got its biggest boost with the development of a seedless grape in the 1870s.
California also produces most of the nation's supply of the "dried plums" we once called "prunes." While 20 percent of plums are sold fresh, the rest go to drying ovens to be shrunk and shriveled. Though prunes haven't changed much, the industry has gone to great lengths to rename them and transform their image, which was associated with old age and sluggish gastrointestinal tracts.
Prunes aren't the only food with a PR problem. The unfortunately named rape plant, whose seeds had been pressed into an industrial-quality oil for years, is grown in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Since the 1970s, after scientists made genetic adjustments to reduce a fatty acid in the seed, the oil has been marketed for cooking under the made-up name "canola oil."
Kiwifruit, which was not imported to the United States until the 1960s, has become a cliché of fashionable dining—but only after acquiring that name. The fuzzy brown fruits were originally called "Chinese gooseberries," but importers were worried that Americans would shun them because the name suggested a link to a communist country. In fact, the fruit was mostly grown in New Zealand, so they changed the name to kiwi, after New Zealand's national bird.
Strawberries are our most popular berry, and California produces nearly 90 percent of America's crop. Most are grown along the Pacific coast, from San Diego to Monterey, where the ocean exposure provides moderate temperatures year round. Most are shipped here by refrigerated trucks.
Though the state of Washington is the country's biggest source of red raspberries, Oregon is one of our most versatile berry producers. It ranks high in red raspberries and produces nearly all our black raspberries and blackberries. Cultivated blueberries mostly come from Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
Few foods are as connected to our national mythology as cranberries, said to have been served at the first Thanksgiving feast after the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620. Cranberries are harvested in the fall from water-filled bogs, and Massachusetts remains a major producer, though nearly twice as many come from Wisconsin. Once known as "bounceberries," because they bounce when they're ripe, they were transformed into "crane berries" by German and Dutch settlers who noticed that their pale pink blossoms resembled the heads of the cranes that frequented the bogs.
Cranberries were one of the first perishable foods to be shipped across the Atlantic because they contain a natural preservative called benzoic acid and could be packed in water-filled barrels for the long voyage. When a ship carrying cranberries wrecked along the coast of the Netherlands, the cranberries washed ashore, took root, and have been cultivated there ever since.
The pear's connection to Europe is obvious in the popularity of the d'Anjou and Bosc varieties, which were developed by Belgians and were a favorite of King Louis XIV of France. American colonists imported pears from France, but we now have a big domestic supply coming out of the river valleys of Oregon and Washington.
Cherries come in two types—sweet ones you eat fresh and tart ones used as pie filling. Sweet cherries, which include Bings and Lamberts, are grown mostly in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. One of the limitations of sweet cherries is a short season, which is why you find imports from Chile and elsewhere filling in. About 70 percent of tart cherries are grown along the lakeshore in western Michigan.
One of the fading scenes of roadside America is an old truck filled with watermelons, with a handmade sign that invites you to pull over, thump the merchandise for ripeness, and buy a couple to be iced down and enjoyed. Watermelons originated in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa and were cultivated 5,000 years ago by the Egyptians, who appreciated their thirst-quenching properties. Today watermelons are grown in many states and are often available in season from local growers, but the biggest producers are California, Texas, Florida, and Georgia. California is the top producer of two other popular melons, honeydews and cantaloupes.
Pineapples were so hard to ship in the days before refrigeration that their rarity made them a status symbol on the tables of Europe and early America. That began to change a century ago, when the pineapple industry took off in the Hawaiian Islands, where Captain James Cook had introduced the fruit, a native of Brazil, decades before. James Dole, who became known as the "pineapple king," developed machines to peel, core, and cut pineapple, and he began shipping canned pineapple to the US mainland. He was one of the first food merchants to offer recipes in women's magazines. Much of our pineapple still comes by ship from Hawaii, though it's also imported from Costa Rica and Mexico.
The marketing of bananas, now our most popular tropical fruit, was limited by their fragility. They were introduced to America in 1876 at the exposition in Philadelphia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence—they were wrapped in foil and sold for ten cents each—and for years were available only in seacoast towns where fast-sailing banana schooners docked. The schooners got their bananas in Costa Rica, where an American engineer, contracted to build a national railroad, had planted bananas alongside the tracks to create cargo. This became the United Fruit Company in 1899, making Costa Rica the first of the banana republics whose political and economic stability was assured on occasion by American marines. Our leading suppliers of bananas are Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Colombia, and Honduras.
Americans also eat lots of nuts, many of which come from California. The state has nearly half a million acres of almond groves, and almonds are the state's biggest agricultural export. California also is the leader in walnuts and pistachios, while Hawaii leads in macadamia nuts, and Oregon is tops in hazelnuts. Georgia, Texas, and New Mexico are the leaders in pecans. Cashews are mostly imported from India.
Peanuts are by far America's best-selling nuts, though they are legumes rather than real nuts, and Georgia remains the biggest producer. About half our peanuts go into peanut butter, which is fine, because lots of fruit goes into jelly.
How Columbus Became America's First Great Food Merchant
Scholars have peered deep into history to discover the origins of food, finding clues in everything from prehistoric caves to the art of antiquity. They've found evidence of popcorn used by the Aztecs, a cave painting in Libya showing people milking cows, and Egyptian tombs with traces of the much-revered onion. Pears and celery make appearances in Homer's Odyssey, the Greeks awarded bay-leaf crowns to Olympic heroes, and lemons were painted on the walls of Pompeii. Dates are mentioned numerous times in the Koran, and food figures often in the Bible, from Eve's apple to Aaron's almond-wood rod.
Foods have spread around the globe over hundreds of years in a diaspora that even today influences where they are eaten. Wild raspberries may have been carried into the Western Hemisphere from Asia by prehistoric people crossing the Bering land bridge. Traders on the Silk Road between Asia and the Mediterranean left a trail of almond trees from kernels dropped along the way. Conquest and empire added variety to the table: The Moors who conquered Spain in the 11th century brought along watermelons, lemons, and other foods.
The spice trade was essential to the palates of Europeans in the Middle Ages, when most food was flavorless and barely edible. Pepper was so valuable that it was counted out peppercorn by peppercorn. Guards on London docks had their pockets sewn shut to make sure they didn't steal any spices. The battle to control such a lucrative trade was filled with intrigue and could be vicious.
Arab traders with caravans of as many as 4,000 camels dominated the trade for centuries, bringing pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and other spices from the Orient to markets in Cairo, where they made their way to Venice and into Europe. The Arabs were secretive about their sources, but the Europeans, including Marco Polo, learned enough about the spice-producing regions of the Far East to set off a contest for control of the trade.
Portugal had the upper hand at first but was challenged by the Dutch in the 17th century. The Dutch monopolized the spice trade by dominating or cutting deals with native peoples from Ceylon and India to the East Indies. And they protected their monopolies with an iron fist—sometimes burning cinnamon when the price fell too low. The French broke the Dutch monopoly by stealing cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg plants from Dutch colonies and planting them on islands they controlled in the Indian Ocean.
Even today, when you buy spices, you are part of an exotic market that stretches into dozens of countries. The United States, as the world's superpower, dominates the spice trade now, importing more spices than any country; Baltimore-based McCormick is the spice world's largest company. Among the top dozen sellers are black pepper (from Vietnam, Brazil, and Indonesia), mustard seed (Canada), red pepper (Mexico), sesame seed (Mexico), paprika (Spain), cinnamon (Vietnam), cumin (Syria), white pepper (Indonesia), oregano (Turkey), poppy seed (Netherlands), and ginger (China).
Few people are more responsible for what we eat than Christopher Columbus, who set off from Spain on the first of his voyages to the New World in 1492. He triggered a movement known as the "Colombian exchange," in which foods indigenous to North America, South America, and the Caribbean were taken back to Europe, and Old World foods were introduced to the Americas. Before Columbus, Europe had never known potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, squashes, pumpkins, peanuts, peppers, avocados, corn, or turkeys. Columbus brought to the New World olives, grapes, bananas, sugar cane, coffee, onions, cattle, hogs, sheep, wheat, rice, oranges, and lemons.
Columbus was followed by conquistadors and Catholic priests who helped spread European foods into the Americas. The priests were part of a European tradition in which the need for self-sufficiency in monasteries had made monks skilled in the art of food production, from growing fruits and vegetables to making cheese and wine.
In the New World, the conquest of California by the Spanish opened the region to the Franciscans, who built a string of 21 missions along the Pacific coast. The idea was to convert local natives to Catholicism, but spiritual sustenance had to be accompanied by sustenance at the table. The Franciscan horticulturalists introduced grapes, lemons, apples, oranges, peaches, pears, and almonds.
The transatlantic trade in African slaves played a part in the spread of foods. Slave traders discovered that their human cargo survived better if they carried familiar foods like yams. Okra, black-eyed peas, sorghum, and watermelons also have African roots, and many are still grown across the South. Or consider breadfruit: A thousand breadfruit plants, which were native to the South Pacific, were brought in tubs to Jamaica aboard ship by Captain William Bligh. The English were looking for cheap food for their slaves there, and Bligh's first mission, aboard the HMS Bounty, had ended in mutiny. Once a second load of breadfruit finally reached Jamaica and was cultivated, the slaves disliked the taste and refused to eat it.
Immigration influences what appears on supermarket shelves, as the distinctive cuisines of arriving groups find their way into the mainstream. Italians with their pasta and oregano, Germans with their sausages and sauerkraut, Jews with their pastrami and bagels, Greeks with their olives and feta cheese—all are 19th-century immigrant groups whose foods are fully assimilated.
Thanks to the rising number of Hispanics in Washington, it's now possible to find at local supermarkets fresh chili peppers, jìcama, tomatillos, or plantains. And the influx of Asians means more stores are stocking tofu, sushi, bok choy, wasabi root, and edamame beans.
Where's the Beef? The Lateston Where Our Meat Comes From
When Europeans arrived in North America they found the meat diet of the natives limited to species they could hunt—bison, deer, smaller mammals, waterfowl, turkeys, and other birds. The idea of eating the flesh of domesticated animals was well established in Europe, but in America there were no cattle, hogs, sheep, or chickens. Over time all were imported, and many of the most popular breeds here today bear hints of their origin in Europe—Aberdeen Angus cattle from Scotland, Hampshire hogs from England, Merino sheep from Spain, leghorn chickens from Italy.
Americans have turned out to be big meat-eaters. Our per-capita annual consumption stands at 82 pounds of chicken, 62 pounds of beef, and 51 pounds of pork, followed by 18 pounds of turkey, 16 pounds of fish, and only about a pound each of veal and lamb. Chicken, which is cheaper and has less fat, has been a big winner at the expense of beef, which peaked at 95 pounds in the mid-1970s.
The chicken industry was the first to adopt "vertical integration," a system introduced after World War II. This involves large agribusiness companies, like Perdue Farms, creating a seamless system in which they control all aspects of production. The company hatches the specially bred chicks, contracts with farmers to feed company-prescribed diets to thousands of birds packed into large sheds, then slaughters them in nearby plants and ships them to stores under its own brand names.
Perdue produces 250 million chickens a year on the Delmarva Peninsula, where the birds are housed in long sheds familiar to anyone who drives to Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach. Just one of its plants kills about 200,000 chickens a day. Perdue, though the top supplier to Washington, is only the nation's third-largest producer, behind Tysons and Pilgrim's Pride. Many of these companies grow their chickens—known as broilers—in the rural South, especially Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama, which together produce about 3H billion chickens a year.
Free-range chickens, a throwback to traditional farm practice, have gained popularity with big-city consumers who see them as more humanely grown and producing a higher-quality meat. Their fashionable status would come as a surprise to my late mother, who always kept a few chickens on our Missouri farm and was capable of wringing a chicken's neck, cleaning its feathers, and having it in a frying pan in less time than it takes to get through most supermarket checkout lines.
So specialized is the poultry industry that the broiler business is separate from the production of eggs. Hens, packed tightly into cages, turn out about 90 billion eggs a year. The leaders are Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. The top producers of turkeys, which are grown in much the same way as broilers, are Minnesota, North Carolina, and Missouri.
There was a time when Carl Sandburg could say with confidence that Chicago was "hog butcher for the world." Farmers brought hogs by truck and railcar into the pens of the city's stockyards. Meatpackers like Swift and Armour bought them and moved them a few hundred yards to the slaughterhouse, where they were processed into pork chops, bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, and other products. That's long gone—the stockyards were torn down in the 1960s.
The big news in the pork business is that hogs are following chickens into vertical integration, making "factory farms" the source of nearly a quarter of American pork. Typically a large company comes into an out-of-the-way corner of a state, buys up large tracts of cheap land, and puts up elongated sheds where thousands of hogs are confined on floors of metal grates. Feed comes from a company-owned mill nearby; the manure that drops through the grates is flushed into a lagoon and eventually gets sprayed on the surrounding land, with odors and runoff that anger neighbors and environmentalists. The pigs are produced by artificially inseminated sows in farrowing houses according to strict genetic standards—all to ensure that "the other white meat" will appeal to consumers. The pigs are slaughtered nearby in a company-owned plant, often staffed by immigrant laborers.
About three-fourths of hogs are bred and fed on family farms and slaughtered in packing plants in smaller towns like Ottumwa, Iowa. Most of these hogs are in the Midwest and Great Plains. Iowa is the leader, followed by Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana, South Dakota, and Oklahoma.
There's also an Eastern pork belt that includes North Carolina, now the country's second largest producer, and Virginia, which ranks ninth. Much of this is attributable to Smithfield Foods, which started out as a little Virginia company famous for its hams but has transformed itself through acquisitions into the nation's fourth-largest pork producer. One of its North Carolina packing plants can slaughter 24,000 hogs a day.
Beef cattle, as much a part of the mythology of the American West as the gunslinger and wagon train, have escaped vertical integration. That's because cattle, unlike chickens and hogs, are harder to keep in confinement. Cows, which take nine months to produce a calf, need space to graze, whether in the grass ranges of the Great Plains and West or the richer pastures of the Midwest. The state with the most cows is Texas (5.4 million), followed by Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, and Montana.
Most of the calves on farms and ranches are weaned and sold after a few months and shipped to feedlots, located near slaughterhouses in places like Garden City, Kansas, and Greeley, Colorado. The feedlots, which carry as many as 100,000 fattening steers and heifers at one time, are located close to supplies of corn, soybeans, and other feed grains. Five states have many of the feedlots, running in a string from Nebraska into Kansas and Colorado and on south into the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles.
Dodge City, Kansas—once the end of the trail where cowboys drove herds of Texas cattle north to put them aboard railroad cars for transport to distant slaughtering houses—now is surrounded by feedlots and has a couple of big beef-packing plants. The meat is cut up, boxed, and shipped by refrigerated railcars and trucks across the country.
Mother Nature Makes the Big Decisions, and She Can Be Fickle
Cruising down the aisles of an air-conditioned supermarket, it is easy to forget one of the laws of food: In agriculture, climate is destiny.
Some of what you buy originates in a globe-circling band of hot and humid climate along the Equator. Bananas from Central America and Ecuador, pineapples from Hawaii and Costa Rica, coconuts from the Philippines, coffee from Kenya, cashews from India, pepper from Indonesia, and cocoa beans from Cote d'Ivoire—all are plants that demand tropical heat.
Subtropical areas farther from the Equator specialize in other foods: almonds and lemons in California, oranges in Florida, dates in Pakistan and Iran, olives in Italy and Spain.
Temperate climates, where cold winters limit the growing season, turn out commodities that could not survive so much heat—wheat for bread and pasta from the American Great Plains and Canada, apples from Washington and New York.
Freakish weather can upset business as usual. Frost is always a threat to the orange groves of Florida and the peach orchards of Georgia and South Carolina, and last year hurricanes and heavy rains wiped out so many tomatoes in Florida, California, and Mexico that prices more than doubled. The tsunami that hit Thailand and Indonesia caused great damage to shrimp farms. There are always attempts to beat the forces of nature; in winter, tomatoes from Canada are grown in greenhouses.
Though rainfall is another big factor, humans have been able through irrigation to overcome the limitations of a dry climate and take advantage of the accompanying sunshine. Soil quality can be manipulated with fertilizers to some extent, but matching soil with the right plants remains a factor in the geographic distribution of many foods. Pears thrive in the volcanic soil in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon, and watermelons like the sandy soil of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
Terrain can be a factor. Most American rice is grown in Arkansas, where the flat Mississippi River bottom and the availability of water is just the right combination for paddies. The natural bogs in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts and in New Jersey and Wisconsin are perfect for cranberries. Potatoes, a high-altitude plant that originated in the Andes, grow well in the elevated plateaus of Idaho and the eastern part of Washington.
The forces of nature sometimes combine with other factors to make one place famous for a certain food. The best black truffles are dug from the forest floors of Périgord in France, and beluga caviar, extracted from sturgeon, is imported from countries around the Caspian Sea, including Iran and Kazakhstan. Supermarkets carry wild rice gathered by Native Americans in canoes from lakes in Minnesota and wild blueberries picked in Maine. Avery Island in Louisiana has a monopoly on Tabasco sauce thanks to a certain kind of salt available there and an aggressive trademark lawyer. Two-thirds of our horseradish is grown and processed in the small Illinois town of Collinsville, just east of St. Louis—partly because it grows so well in the Mississippi River bottom but also because German immigrants started doing it there more than a century ago.
The area around Kennett Square, in southeastern Pennsylvania, produces more than half of our fresh mushrooms. The industry was started by Quakers, who ran nurseries and began growing mushrooms as a sideline. Many of their laborers were Italian immigrants, whose ancestors now dominate the business. The mushrooms are grown in compost beds in humidity-controlled sheds, a process that takes about four months.
It's not always possible for a country or state to monopolize a commodity forever. Consider the transatlantic migration of durum wheat, which is used to make pasta. The Italians, who had grown most of their own durum, began in the 19th century to import it from Russia, whose wheat became so famous that it attracted the attention of a US Department of Agriculture agent named Mark Carleton, whose job was to scout other countries for crops that might grow well in this country. The seeds Carleton brought home from a trip to Russia in 1898 thrived in North Dakota, though millers in Minneapolis, who concentrated on flour for bread, at first dismissed durum as a useless "macaroni wheat." When World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution interrupted the supply of durum from Russia, the Italians began importing it from North Dakota. Today the wheat for nearly all American-made pasta, and some imported Italian pasta, comes from the fields of North Dakota.
A food sometimes disappears from a place where it once thrived. The orange groves of Los Angeles have given way to sprawling subdivisions; a peach orchard in Augusta, Georgia, is now home to the Masters golf tournament; and some of the best apricot orchards in California were cleared to make way for Silicon Valley.
In Monterey, the California town whose sardine industry was made famous in the 1930s by John Steinbeck in Cannery Row, overfishing long ago netted all of the once-plentiful little fish. The old canneries have been replaced by an aquarium and shops for tourists.
Eat Those Fresh Vegetables and Give Thanks to California
Easterners may think of California as the home of Hollywood and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but people in the food business know that one of the state's real stars is agriculture. It produces more than half of the nation's vegetables along with about 40 percent of its fruit.
California has lots of advantages—a 12-month growing season, fertile soil, thousands of Mexican laborers, one of the nation's innovative ag schools at the University of California at Davis, and a willingness to try any crop that might be profitable. Some of the productive areas run up the Pacific Coast, but the San Joaquin Valley is the real heartland of California agriculture, covering millions of acres just west of the Sierra Nevadas and running for 400 miles south from Sacramento through Modesto and Fresno to Bakersfield. It is no accident that Scott Peterson, who lived in Modesto, was a fertilizer salesman.
The great flaw in the San Joaquin, which is part of the larger Central Valley, is that parts of it get only ten inches of rain a year, less than a third as much as in the agricultural states of the Midwest. The equalizer for California is irrigation, which has made deserts bloom since ancient times in the Middle East and was introduced in this country by the Mormons around Salt Lake in the 1840s. Today about 70 percent of the world's freshwater consumption is for agriculture. In the San Joaquin, the water comes from the Central Valley Project, a federally financed system begun in the 1930s, which collects snowmelt and rainwater in a couple of dozen reservoirs and delivers it to the fields through 500 miles of canals.
If you serve a platter of crudités, it's likely that many of the vegetables will come from California. It leads the nation in carrots, celery, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, avocados, and asparagus as well as the parsley you might use for garnish. It's second in eggplant, radishes, and fresh cucumbers, just behind Florida.
If the Great Plains are America's breadbasket, California qualifies as the country's salad bowl, especially when it comes to lettuce. Given the popularity of dieting, each of us now eats about 30 pounds of lettuce a year‚ five times more than a century ago when it was impractical to ship it long distances.
California produces the biggest share of our iceberg lettuce, which remains the country's best-selling lettuce. The state also is tops in number-two-seller romaine, and it packs and ships more spinach, butter lettuce, Bibb lettuce, watercress, escarole, endive, cabbage, mustard greens, and kale than any other state.
In some instances, a California town monopolizes a single food—a situation that inevitably leads to its declaration as the world capital in this sphere, to annual festivals, and to the selection of beauty queens. Gilroy, south of San Jose, claims the title of garlic capital, and during harvest you can see—and smell—long lines of trucks at the processing plants. Will Rogers once said it was the only place in the world you could marinate a steak just by hanging it outdoors, though some of the garlic growing has shifted east into the San Joaquin Valley.
Castroville is the artichoke capital, though this member of the thistle family was introduced first in Louisiana by settlers from France, where it had been popularized by Catherine de Medici during her marriage to the French king. The first California Artichoke Queen, in 1947, was Marilyn Monroe.
THE MOST POPULAR vegetable in the United States is the potato. A staple of the Incas, it grew well at high Andean altitudes and was carried back to Europe by Spanish conquistadors who followed Columbus. It didn't catch on at first because people knew it was a member of the nightshade family of plants, which also included the tomato and were thought to be poisonous. But the potato had its promoters—a French agronomist developed mashed potatoes to hide their identity, and he helped King Louis XIV prepare a feast with nothing but potato dishes, including potato liqueur.
The potato eventually became a staple of European peasants, especially in Ireland. When potato blight wiped out the crop in the 1840s, nearly a million Irish died of starvation, and another million emigrated to America.
Today the top US producer of potatoes is Idaho—blessed with high altitude, irrigation, and rich volcanic soil—followed by Washington. In Idaho some of the first potatoes were planted by a Presbyterian minister trying to persuade Nez Perce Indians to give up hunting and gathering for agriculture. More substantial potato fields were planted by Mormon settlers who moved out of Salt Lake City.
Onions are the fourth-best-selling vegetable, and we consume about 19 pounds per person each year. Oregon, Idaho, and California are the top producers. One of the most famous onions, the Vidalia, was first grown outside a little southeast Georgia town of the same name by a Depression-era farmer desperate to find a way to make money. His onions turned out to be extraordinarily sweet, and neighbors began to copy his success. The first Vidalias were sold at farmers markets, introduced in supermarkets in the late 1930s, and now are so popular that the state of Georgia holds a trademark on the name.
Though tomatoes are associated with Italian cuisine, they are natives of the western side of South America and were first cultivated by the Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico. Conquistadors carried tomato seeds with them back to Spain, and tomatoes spread to Italy and Portugal. They have been popular among American gardeners since the 1850s and rival fresh sweet corn as a summer favorite. Florida is the leading source of fresh tomatoes, followed by California, which is dominant in growing tomatoes for processing into paste, sauce, and ketchup.
Florida, with its year-round growing season, also is one of the top producers of fresh sweet corn, along with California and New York. Sweet corn for canning is grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Florida leads in fresh green beans, while green beans for canning are a Wisconsin specialty. Green peas for canning are grown most extensively in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Southern Minnesota, it turns out, is the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant.
Even in an age when the fresh-produce section is stacked high, a big share of vegetables and fruits ends up in other parts of the supermarket—not just canned or frozen but in other forms: fruits as juices and jellies, cucumbers as pickles, nuts in cereals, potatoes as chips and French fries. A third of all potatoes are processed into frozen French fries, which gained popularity here after American soldiers in France took a liking to them during World War I.
Advice for Staying Healthy and Green at the Supermarket
There was a time in the kitchens of America when the road to good health and happiness could be reduced to a few rules. Drink your calcium-rich milk for strong bones and perfect teeth. Get your vitamin C from a daily glass of orange juice. Eat carrots for good eyesight, spinach for the strength of Popeye, and an apple a day to keep the doctor away.
These days a trip to the supermarket can be more complicated. For some people, shopping for food is now an act that involves strivings not just for good health but for social status and ethical perfection. Ideology has come to dinner.
This is not a new phenomenon. Folklore has always attributed special power to foods—for their medicinal value (mustard, raisins) or as aphrodisiacs (oysters, strawberries). Many religions have dietary laws or traditions—Hindus refusing the meat of the sacred cow, Jews and Muslims avoiding pork, Mormons refraining from coffee and tea, Catholics avoiding meat on Fridays.
Vegetarians get a nod of recognition from supermarkets in the stocking of "meat analogs" like tofu burgers, and it's often forgotten that we have vegetarians to thank for several products that even meat eaters now enjoy. Corn flakes were invented in the late 19th century by Will Kellogg to give variety to the diets of Seventh-day Adventists and other vegetarians.
In today's supermarket, health issues arise everywhere as nutritional science has grown more sophisticated and as more people see healthy food as a way to increase their longevity and lower their risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other threats. Alarms arise over disease and contaminantion—salmonella in chickens, E. coli in hamburger, mad cow disease, pesticide residue on apples, too much mercury in tuna. There are things to avoid (preservatives, sugar, salt, fat, carbs) and things to seek out (fiber, antioxidants, omega-3). All of which causes food producers to take note: Mushroom growers are busy financing nutritional studies to prove that their little fungus merits a "health halo."
Ethical issues, especially animal rights, have worked their way into the food world. Most canned tuna carries a label assuring consumers that no dolphins were swept up in the tuna nets and killed. Veal—whose white or pinkish color is produced by confining dairy calves in small stalls and feeding them milk rather than grain—makes some consumers feel guilty. The same goes for mass-produced chickens, whose beaks often are clipped to prevent fighting. In France and California, the forced feeding of geese and ducks to fatten their livers for foie gras is a cause célèbre.
Environmentalism has became a factor, where food production is wrapped up in conflicts over pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, soil erosion, and the disposal of animal wastes. And it influences the fishing industry, where there are issues of overfishing and ocean pollution. The environmental ethic is behind the marketing of "shade-grown" coffee from South America, which allows consumers to express their support for an end to the destruction of the rain forest. Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonian tooth fish) is harder to find in markets and restaurants these days because environmentalists have raised alarms that it is being illegally overfished.
No supermarket capitalizes on health and ethical concerns—or combines them with gourmet panache—quite as much as Whole Foods. Many of its fruits and vegetables have been grown without pesticides and artificial fertilizers. All products must be free of artifical additives, sweetners, colorings, and preservatives, which means you can find Cheerios but are out of luck if you are looking for Coke. The store insists that its meat come from cattle, hogs, chickens, and turkeys that have received no antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal byproducts in their feed. This means they usually come from small farms and ranches that share the Whole Foods ethic.
The food that people buy—like their cars, houses, or clothes—conveys signals about their sophistication and aspirations. It is one thing to have an intimate relationship with caviar from the Caspian Sea, truffles from the forests of France, lobster from the coast of Maine, or Kobe beef from Japan. It is quite another to have subsisted, as some of us did in the 1950s, on sandwiches of Wonder Bread, Spam, Velveeta, iceberg lettuce, and a slathering of Miracle Whip. To have risen above that in a single generation to pesto—with fresh basil from an organic market, pine nuts from China, extra-virgin olive oil and Parmesan from Italy—makes one a Horatio Alger of food.
It is hardly a surprise that Washington—with one of the nation's most affluent and educated populations—has lots of people with the means and knowledge to enjoy high-end food. The region is loaded with people who know food from traveling abroad, dining at the best restaurants, and having kitchens with restaurant-quality ranges and refrigerators. It's no wonder that Washington has attracted so many upscale markets, including Whole Foods, Dean & DeLuca, Wegmans, Balducci's, and Harris Teeter.
The media now pay much attention to food, publicizing cooking trends and fashionable ingredients that supermarkets are compelled to stock. Food magazines, winetastings, cooking classes, the glorification of chefs, and cable television's Food Network all contribute to the curiosity about food. Many-bladed food processors and espresso makers are now as common in upscale kitchens as sausage grinders and butter churns were in the homes of our ancestors.
A food product's chance of success in a high-end supermarket depends on how it fits with certain values. It needs an image of sophistication and ought to be exotic and cutting edge—Marcona almonds from Spain, fiddlehead ferns from Maine, and pomegranate juice from California. Last Thanksgiving, says a Whole Foods marketing person, the store encountered lots of people suddenly looking for kosher salt so that they could soak their turkey in brine.
High-status food ought to appear "authentic," the handiwork of local "artisans" rather than some mass-produced item processed in a distant factory. It ought to be as fresh as possible—why settle for frozen snapper or dried rosemary when fresh is right there for the taking? And the best food ought to cost a little more—sometimes considerably more—which is thought to assure high quality as certainly as at an Ivy League university.
Some of these values are served by imported products, especially from Europe. Cheeses are one of Europe's top food exports to the United States, arriving in dozens of varieties that were first made in the Middle Ages by villagers or monks in obscure places whose names are now known only for their cheese.
We import the most from France, including Camembert, Neufchâtel, Roquefort, Port Salut, and Brie—a few of those that once prompted Charles de Gaulle to pose the question, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" We also get Parmesan, provolone, and mozzarella from Italy, Edam and Gouda from the Dutch, Gruyère and Emmentaler from the Swiss, Havarti from the Danes, and feta from the Greeks.
In the USA, the leading dairy states are California (1.7 million cows) and Wisconsin (1.2 million), followed by New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Idaho—though more milk is transformed into cheese in Wisconsin than anywhere else. Many American cheesemakers do their own versions of cheeses that originated in Europe, including Cheddar, an English invention that is now the most popular of American-produced cheeses. A few American cheeses follow the European tradition of being named after the place they originated, including Colby (Wisconsin) and Monterey jack (California). Liederkranz is a cheese that originated in New York and was named after a local German singing club.
While california produces a substantial crop of olives, imported olives are much more prized in the gourmet markets. Olives are thought to have originated in Crete and have been a staple of agriculture for thousands of years around the Mediterranean. Most of the imported olives in markets today come from trees in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, Tunisia, and Morocco. The same countries are the source of olive oil, which has become much more popular with its good publicity about contributing to lower cholesterol.
Though table salt like Morton's still comes from evaporators and deep-shaft mines in Ohio, Kansas, Texas, and Louisiana, you also find gourmet salt in many colors and textures from Brittany, Wales, Sicily, Spain, and Hawaii. Whole Foods carries 65 vinegars made from or flavored with various wines, raspberries, pears, plums, and rice as well three dozen brands of honey from orange blossoms, wildflowers, and the flowers of the acacia tree. You will find cooking oil extracted from peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, and rapeseed.
Mustards are hot. Whole Foods carries about four dozen brands, including versions of the famous Dijon that was first created in France in the 1850s. All of this gets a little confusing because America's best-selling mustard is French's. The mild yellow mustard was introduced in 1904 by George J. French at the St. Louis World's Fair at the same time as the hot dog. It has nothing to do with France—a fact that French's emphasized when some people were boycotting all things French at the beginning of the Iraq war. It's manufactured in Springfield, Missouri, from mustard seed brought in from the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Some Fish Are Caught the Old-Fashioned Way; Some Are Raised on Farms
Joe Stofer knew it was about that time of the spring when soft-shelled crabs would be caught by the thousands off the coast of North Carolina. So Stofer, who buys fish and seafood for Whole Foods in this region, decided to run a special. His stores were alerted, and ads were run for a weekend sale. Stofer expected to sell 10,000 crabs. But in the runup to the weekend, the weather changed, and soft-shelled crabs were nearly impossible to get. All customers got were apologies, though by the following weekend crabs were plentiful enough for the sale to go on.
This can happen because the supply of fish and seafood depends more on the whims of nature than do other parts of a supermarket's supply chain. Agriculture and the domestication of livestock have created reliability that fish and seafood can't match, because they are mostly brought up by net, line, and trap from the depths of the wild.
Americans spend about $60 billion a year on fish and seafood, two-thirds in restaurants and a third at home. We eat about 16 pounds per person, up three pounds from two decades ago, and are especially fond of shrimp and tuna. Almost 80 percent is imported, with Canada our biggest supplier, followed by China, Thailand, Chile, Ecuador, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India.
The geographic shape of our domestic fishing industry is determined by the fact that fishermen have to go where the fish and other creatures are. In dollar value, the leader is Alaska, followed by Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, and Texas. Virginia is tops along the Mid-Atlantic coast, followed by New Jersey and North Carolina. The biggest catches in the region come into Reedville, Virginia, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and Virginia's Hampton Roads area.
While filets of fresh fish, displayed on a bed of ice, are the glamour item, it's tuna fish in a can that is near the top of our fish-eating habit. Sushi has gained popularity in Washington, but it has a long way to go to catch up with the tuna-fish sandwich. Americans and the Japanese have always eaten nearly half of the world's tuna, but Europeans are catching up fast. Tuna are caught worldwide, some pulled in by nets far offshore in both the Atlantic and Pacific, headed and gutted on the spot, and frozen in factory ships that stay at sea for weeks. Much of our tuna comes from Thailand, Ecuador, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
We also eat lots of shrimp. Thailand supplies nearly $1 billion worth of shrimp to the US market, much of it farm-raised and brought here frozen by refrigerated ships. Vietnam sells us another $595 million of shrimp, with imports from China, India, Mexico, and Ecuador above $200 million. American shrimping is concentrated in Louisiana and Texas along the Gulf of Mexico—there are said to be nearly 11,000 commercial boats there—but the annual catch of about $435 million is dwarfed by imports.
Globalization has made for an interesting irony in Louisiana. After the American war in Southeast Asia, many Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s took up shrimping in Louisiana, where they were resented by the Cajuns who had dominated the industry. Now, with the flood of imported shrimp from Southeast Asia, among those whose livelihoods are threatened by the competition are those same Vietnamese immigrants.
Few states take their identity from a specific food quite as much as Maine, where the lobsters trapped with pots in its cold coastal waters are deftly marketed. The North Atlantic crustacean, whose habitat stretches as far south as North Carolina, is slow-growing and hard to catch, hence pricey. Maine does have a legitimate claim as the US lobster capital, bringing in about $285 million worth of lobsters last year. But don't boast too much to the Canadians, whose Maritime Provinces send lots of lobsters to the US market.
More than 90 percent of our domestic salmon comes from Alaska, where some 14,000 boats ply the cold waters of the North Pacific in search of this pink-tinged fish whose complicated life cycle keeps it moving between inland rivers and the open sea. Smaller amounts of wild salmon come from Washington, Oregon, and California, and some is imported from Canada. Other salmon is farm-raised, both in the Pacific Northwest and in such places as Canada, Chile, the Faroe Islands, Scotland, Norway, and Iceland. Because fish is highly perishable, some of this is delivered by air cargo. Whole Foods's Joe Stofer tells of visiting salmon farms in Iceland, watching fish being processed, then seeing them immediately loaded on to the same Icelandair flight he took back to Baltimore-Washington International.
Many of the other fish you find in the stores, both fresh and frozen, are fin fish caught in the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic by fleets from many nations, including the USA. Swordfish, flounder, sole, halibut, snapper, grouper, cod, haddock, sea bass, ocean perch, and mahi-mahi are among the most popular species.
While there is increasing worry about diminishing stocks of several fish species, the decline of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay is one of the steepest and closest to home. As recently as a century ago, oyster reefs in the bay were so massive that they posed a navigational hazard and yielded an annual harvest in the millions of bushels. Because of the presence of deadly parasites, years of overharvesting, and a rise in pollution, the annual oyster harvest this year is expected to be only about 60,000 bushels. Today the Chesapeake Bay lands just 2 percent of domestic oysters, compared with 68 percent from the Gulf of Mexico and 25 percent from the Pacific coast.
The situation is only slightly better for blue crabs, which have sustained generations of Chesapeake Bay watermen in Virginia and Maryland, where the popular crustacean is a state symbol. Though the crab harvest has improved in the past three years, the bay provides only about 27 percent of domestic crabs, slightly less than Louisiana and slightly more than North Carolina. Imported crabmeat is big competition, especially from Indonesia and India.
Irony abounds: Some of the threat to the Chesapeake crab is from an excess of nitrogen runoff in its watershed, which is traceable to a couple of our other appetites. Milk cows in Pennsylvania produce vast quantities of manure, and chickens on the Delmarva Peninsula produce waste and are fed grain grown with fertilizers and pesticides—some of which washes into the bay.
More species of fish are being farm-raised, a process that is still in its infancy but parallels humanity's shift long ago from hunting to the domestication of mammals and birds. US aquaculture produces more than $1 billion worth of fish a year, with about 40 percent of that catfish and the rest salmon, trout, striped bass, tilapia, oysters, crawfish, and clams. That's a fraction of the farm-raised shrimp that is imported from Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia or fish from China, Taiwan, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Ecuador. Mississippi is our leader in catfish, having converted more than 100,000 acres of soybean fields and other land to catfish ponds over the past 25 years. Idaho, with lots of cold spring water, is tops in trout, and the Pacific Northwest leads in salmon.
Many environmentalists object to fish farming, especially when done in pens in coastal waters, a technique common in raising salmon. They say it leads to extreme fecal contamination and disease and parasite outbreaks and runs the risk of allowing fish to escape and alter the gene pool and habitat of wild fish. New federal rules require supermarkets to label fish as wild-caught or farm-raised.
Tilapia is the comer among farm-raised fish, having emerged from obscurity a few years ago to regular appearances in restaurants and supermarkets. A hardy, fast-growing tropical fish, tilapia have been raised in Israel for centuries and produce a white, flaky meat that's relatively inexpensive. In America it is being raised in such disparate places as heated tanks in West Virginia and New York, sprawling facilities in California, and irrigation canals in Arizona.
Getting Food to Us Fast and Cool With Airplanes, Ships, and Trucks
The farmers who brought their goods to Washington's market for Thomas Jefferson's perusal were local producers who delivered them by wagon as soon as they were picked. The availability of strawberries or peas was ruled by the local season, and the trick was to get goods to the table before they spoiled. Now, with the supply chain stretched around the world, much food is still perishable, but the means of getting it quickly to consumers benefits from a couple of centuries of innovation.
Products make their way from the field or ocean to our tables through a network of processors, packers, manufacturers, wholesalers, brokers, shippers, buyers, distributors, warehouse operators, and supermarkets. This supply system is on display every night at the produce and seafood distribution centers in Jessup, Maryland. It is a hurly-burly transfer point where trucks and railroad cars deliver the food to loading docks and warehouses, where it is quickly shipped out to stores.
Nearby are facilities owned by Giant Food, where the chain employs 1,600 people making ice cream and distributing dry goods, frozen foods, produce, fish, and meat. Another Giant facility, in Landover, includes a dairy that turns out 550,000 gallons of milk a week. Giant, the local company that introduced the supermarket to Washington in 1936 but was bought by Dutch-owned Royal Ahold in 1998, has about 28 percent of the Washington food market, according to a survey by Food World. Safeway has 18 percent, Shoppers Food Warehouse 9 percent, Food Lion 6 percent, and Whole Foods just over 2 percent.
The worldwide dispersal of food has been most profoundly affected by the evolution of transporation. Spices, tea, and other products with a long shelf life have traveled by ship for hundreds of years, but only in the past century have ships become reliable carriers of perishable fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish from overseas.
Fast-moving schooners were sometimes able to get pineapples or bananas out of the tropics to the East Coast in the 1890s, but just as often they were spoiled by the time they arrived. To maintain a lower temperature for bananas, the United Fruit Company in 1899 painted its ships white to reflect the tropical sun. It was not until refrigerated ships became common in the 20th century that the problem of spoilage was solved. These ships, known as "reefers," still carry the bulk of our imported fresh and frozen produce, meat, and fish.
Within our borders, most food travels by truck or rail. Railroads had the upper hand at first, but the building of the interstate highway system beginning in the 1950s shifted business to the truckers.
An estimated 90 percent of the food shipped within the USA travels by truck, including lots of fresh produce from the West Coast and Florida and meat from the Midwest. Strawberries from California take about four days by truck to reach eastern supermarkets. Whole Foods, which has a centralized bakery in Massachusetts, brings dough by overnight truck to Washington, where baking is finished in stores. Bulk tanker trucks haul milk from farms to dairies, and its tendency to go bad quickly means it mostly comes from areas nearby. Giant gets most of its milk from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.
Air cargo, first used to transport fresh California strawberries to the East Coast in the 1960s, moves an increasing amount of our food from overseas despite its higher cost. In addition to cargo specialists like FedEx and UPS, passenger jets landing at Washington Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International often have food in their cargo holds. Among the arrivals are bell peppers from the Netherlands, fish from Spain, raspberries and figs from Chile, fresh herbs from Mexico, and chili peppers from Trinidad and Tobago.
One of the biggest users of air cargo is the flower industry, which ships vast quantities of flowers to American supermarkets and florists from Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Mexico as well as tulips from the Netherlands and orchids from Thailand. Miami International is the biggest gateway for flowers, handling as many as 15 million stems of South American roses daily around Valentine's Day.
In moving food over great distances, transportation works in tandem with preservation. Spoilage is an ancient problem, and humans have hit on many ways to forestall it. You still see the time-tested techniques in modern supermarkets—cucumbers that have been pickled, hams that have been smoked, apricots and cherries that are dried, milk that has been turned to yogurt and cheese. There lie fish on a bed of crushed ice, just as the Romans used to preserve food by packing it in snow brought down from the Alps.
One of the most versatile preservation techniques is canning, which involves heating a food to a high temperature to kill bacteria, then sealing it in an airtight can or glass jar. Canning was introduced to America in the early 19th century. Metal cans, because they were unbreakable, became the standard for commercial foods, while glass Mason jars, invented in 1858, were preferred for putting up food at home.
Canning was a major breakthrough, making tomatoes, peas, sardines, and peaches readily available, leading to Gail Borden's invention of condensed milk and the creation of pork and beans, which were developed for Maine fishermen to take with them to sea. The big annoyance with cans, which for many years had to be opened with a hammer and chisel, was not overcome until 1870 with the invention of a practical can opener.
Icehouses and root cellars were traditional ways of taking advantage of the principle that cold temperatures slow the process of decay in foods. The biggest changes came with the introduction of mechanical refrigeration, based on work in the 1850s by Lord Kelvin of England and Ferdinand Carre of France. New ways to use cold temperatures followed. In 1878, Gustavus Swift commissioned an engineer to design a refrigerated railroad car in which air circulated over ice, making it possible to butcher cattle in Chicago and send only the edible parts east. Clarence Birdseye, who once lived in Labrador and noticed that the animals he trapped were better preserved the faster they were frozen, perfected in 1930 the quick-freezing technique that is the basis of the frozen-food industry.
Other innovations extend the life of food in ways that Thomas Jefferson would find unfamiliar. "Food technologists" have come up with chemical additives—some controversial, some not—that preserve foods, enhance their color, or make them easier to prepare for the market. Dehydration renders onions and garlic suitable for bottling, and spices are cleared of bacteria with zaps of radiation.
American-grown apples, most of which are harvested in the fall, are available most of the year thanks to "controlled-atmosphere storage." In sealed warehouses, the level of oxygen is lowered, and carbon dioxide is added to halt the decaying process so the apples can be sold as fresh months later. Tomatoes are often picked and shipped green, then treated with a natural plant hormone called ethylene to hasten ripening just before they get to the stores.
Innovations in packaging make food both easier to ship and more marketable. Plastic and foil keep crackers and potato chips fresh for weeks. Styrofoam containers are used to transport lobster and fish. Salad greens that are precut, mixed, and sold in plastic bags have become a multibillion-dollar market.
Food fights sometimes break out between the United States and its trading partners. Fear of mad cow disease shuts down the import of Canadian beef and the export of American beef to Japan. The European Union bans our genetically altered Flavr-Saver tomatoes. California producers complain that the Chinese are illegally dumping cheap garlic into the US market.
But trade is gaining momentum in the food business just as in everything from textiles to automobiles. Trade rules are being liberalized—the North American Free Trade Agreement is just one example—and many countries, some that gain cost advantages from lax environmental laws and cheap labor, are emerging as suppliers of American supermarkets. Americans spend about $1 trillion a year on food, about half eating out and half at home. About 7 percent of that food ($70 billion) is imported from 170 countries around the world.
Last year, 16 nations sold us more than a billion dollars' worth of agricultural products and seafood, led by Canada ($14 billion) and Mexico ($8 billion). The others were China, Australia, Thailand, Italy, Chile, Ireland, Brazil, the Netherlands, Indonesia, New Zealand, France, India, Colombia, and Ecuador.
With the arrival of spring, a new bounty of fresh produce will be available in farmers markets, and I like to imagine that Thomas Jefferson would be among the shoppers. He'd be checking out the peas. He raised a dozen varieties at Monticello and always took part in a contest among his neighbors to see who could produce the season's first—a contest he almost never won.
But I think that Mr. Jefferson, the farmer, might be impressed and pleased to discover that produce sections these days have fresh peas year-round coming in from Minnesota, Mexico, or Peru. Try Whole Foods, Tom. Charlottesville has one just down the road from Monticello.
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