Ingredient Histories

Handout for Jewish Diversity: Travels of Jewish Foods and Jewish Families—Lesson Plan for Family/Congregational Education

Pumpkins

Pumpkins are native to South America. According to Claudia Roden, author of The Book of Jewish Food, Conquistadors in the Americas brought pumpkins and other American native foods, such as chocolate, vanilla, chili peppers, tomatoes, corn, and potatoes, to ports in Portugal and Spain. From there they were shipped, often by Jewish merchants, to other Mediterranean ports, and next they made their way to North Africa and Europe.

Onions

Many historians believe onions are native to central Asia, while others think that onions grew wild on all the continents. Researchers believe that people began cultivating onions as early as 5000 years ago. In Egypt, people worshipped onions. People ate onions in early Greece, China, and Rome. Onions are less perishable than other vegetables and they can grow in different climates, so people grow and eat onions all over the world. Onions have been used as medicines for almost every ailment. For example, onions have been used for headaches and tooth aches, to help digestion, as a muscle strengthener and a sleep inducer, to heal mouth sores and dog bites, and to grow hair. People also used onions to pay the rent and to give as wedding gifts.

Pilgrims brought onions with them on the Mayflower. However, wild onions already grew throughout North America where Native Americans ate them raw and cooked, and used them to season their foods and dye their clothing (See http://www.onions-usa.org/about/history.asp).

Chick-peas (also known as Garbanzo Beans)

Chick-peas originally came from Turkey and were first cultivated in the Neolithic Period. By 4000 years ago, they had spread to Italy and Greece. In classical Greece, they were eaten both as a staple and as a dessert. In Rome, chick-peas were cooked into a broth and roasted to make a tasty snack. There is evidence that chick-peas were grown and eaten in Germany in the 1st century CE. Chick-peas are popular throughout India, North Africa, Spain, and southern France. Recently, chick-peas have become more popular in the United States (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chick_pea).

Beef

The domestication of cattle began in Europe and Asia during the Stone Age. Researchers have found evidence of domesticated cattle from 6,500 B.C.E in Turkey and other sites in the Near East. The cattle of today evolved from the aurochs, animals that were larger, darker, and had longer curvier horns than modern day cattle.

According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Columbus first brought cattle to the Western Hemisphere on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. He delivered them to Hispaniola where they grew in numbers. From there Hernando Cortez transported cattle to Mexico in 1519 and started the first cattle ranches. These cattle roamed wild and later came to the United States through Texas and California and became known as Longhorns. The Longhorn cattle occupied the open range in the United States until ranchers started fencing in their lands.

Meanwhile in the colonies, a breed known as Devon cattle were brought to the Plymouth colony from Britain in 1623. There they were used as oxen. Other breeds of cattle were imported to other colonies, such as the Shorthorns who were delivered to Virginia in 1783 (See http://www.thecattlesite.com/breeds/beef/).

Water

According to Genesis, water existed even before the world was created. According to scientists, water exists even in outer space. Water covers 70% of the earth and comprises 70% of the human body. Human civilization sprung up in relation to water, since we needed water to survive, and in order to trade goods with others. That is why many cities around the world are located near rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Keeping the water safe for drinking and cooking with, and maintaining enough supply for the population is and has been a major concern throughout human history (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water).

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is native to China, India, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia. Cinnamon was a treasured spice in ancient times. It was regarded as a gift for royalty. It was imported to Egypt from China as early as 2000 BC. Cinnamon is mentioned in the Bible in Exodus 30:23, where Moses is commanded to use both sweet cinnamon and cassia.

In the Middle Ages, Arab merchants carried cinnamon from India to Alexandria in Egypt where it was bought by Venetian traders who sold it throughout Europe. In the middle ages, the peoples of Europe didn’t yet have chocolate and other spices from the Western hemisphere, so cinnamon was considered quite precious. Traders made huge amounts of money from cinnamon. Consequently, European countries fought to conquer Asian lands where cinnamon trees grew.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Portuguese traders discovered and conquered Ceylon (Sri Lanka), one of the world’s main sources of cinnamon. The Portuguese used the indigenous population to step up production of cinnamon, treating them harshly. In 1638 Dutch traders took over the Portuguese fort in Sri Lanka and established their own cinnamon monopoly. The Dutch also treated the indigenous population brutally, in order to make them produce more cinnamon. The British took control of the island from the Dutch in 1796, but by that time cinnamon was being produced in other parts of the world, so people in any one country couldn’t have a monopoly over it.

Today the best cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, but the tree is also grown in southern India, Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, Brazil, Vietnam, Madagascar, Zanzibar, and Egypt (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinnamon and A Taste of Paradise: Cinnamon by Troy David Osborne).

Sugar

Sugar comes from the sugarcane, a tall grass with a hollow stalk filled with sap. Sugarcane probably originated in New Guinea. In prehistoric times, sugarcane was carried to the Pacific Islands and then to India. In India, around 500 BCE, people learned to evaporate its juices to make sugar. By 200 BCE, the Chinese were also producing sugar. The delicious substance quickly became popular throughout the Middle East, China, and India. Arabs and Berbers brought sugar to Western Europe when they conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century BCE. The Crusaders also brought sugar back to Europe from the Middle East.

On one of his voyages, Columbus acquired sugarcane at the Canary Islands and he went on to introduce it to the Western Hemisphere. A few centuries later, the Dutch brought sugarcane to the Caribbean and parts of South America, while the Portuguese introduced sugarcane to Brazil. Between 1701 and 1810, nearly one million Africans were enslaved and taken to South America and the Caribbean to provide the labor for the large sugar plantations that were established there.

In the 18th century traders specializing in sugar, rum, and slaves established the “Triangular Trade” between the American colonies, Africa, and South America/The Caribbean. The traders shipped sugar from South America and the Caribbean to the colonies, where distilleries used it to make rum. The traders bought the rum, and sometimes guns as well, and shipped their cargo to Africa and traded it for slaves. The slaves were then shipped to the Caribbean and traded for sugar to complete the triangle. Each stop along the way provided a large profit for the traders.

In the 18th century, sugarcane was first planted in the United States, in New Orleans. The first sugar refinery was built in New York around 1690, but sugar production was not established as a successful industry in the US until the end of the 19th century (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugar, http://www.essortment.com/history-sugar-41718.html).

Chicken soup

Throughout the world and throughout history, chicken soup has been well known for its curative powers. Ancient Egyptians prescribed it as a cure for the common cold. Many cultures figured out that cooking a chicken in water would yield a delicious soup, and that adding vegetables, seasonings, noodles, rice, or dumplings to the soup would make it even better.

Chicken soup variations are popular in Belgium, Italy, China, Korea, Russia, Brazil, Greece, Mexico, Eastern Europe, Germany, France, and Eastern Europe.

Chicken soup has come to be associated with Jewish culture and nurturing. In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, chickens were often the only meat that families could afford. Chicken soup became a traditional food to celebrate Shabbat. In poor communities, chicken soup could be stretched to feed more people (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_soup).

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Ingredient Histories." (Viewed on September 25, 2022) <https://jwa.org/media/ingredient-histories>.

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