(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 13, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Pumpkins and winter squash are being picked, corn is getting heated, and the last of the summer garden is being gathered in for winter. Many of the wonderful gifts of the garden that we take for granted were unknown to the east before the conquest of the land now called the Americas.
The native people from the Americas had a wonderful and healthy variety of foods to consume, many of them unknown to the rest of the world. Plants like the sunflower had traveled from the American southwest to provide seeds in winter. Dahlias were grown in Mexico and the tubers eaten. Avocados, pineapples, guava, and papaws were all natives that the rest of the world had yet to taste.
Some foods like the potato, which went on to be the major food source for Ireland, were unknown to Europe just a few hundred years before. The wonders of corn were born out of Mayan legend and were eaten from the Inca north into areas of New England. The food was hardly primitive in many areas if the people settled down and planted. Many times, even if the people moved about, they still planted and cared for the land about them.
From the terraced heights of the Inca highlands, to the floating gardens of the Aztecs, to the three sister’s gardens in the west and the corn rows in the east, vegetable gardens played a major role among the native peoples. Each garden was a master work in growing that people are still using the patterns from today.
Even the most humble tomato and chili peppers all started on the Native American shores. With such a huge part of the American diet coming from plants native to the Americas, I cannot fathom a world before the Europeans “discovered” this one with all its tasty treasures.
I have left out the best and most wonderful treasure of all – chocolate! The chocolate fruit was used by the native cultures in Mexico and Central America for religious reasons. It was drunk in something like hot chocolate today, but extra spicy with chili peppers. This drink made it from something only the holy and powerful could drink to something every child looks for once the cold winds blow. The simple treasure of the chocolate bar was something unknown before the fusing of the worlds.
No matter where you are in the world today, the variety of foods you may choose to eat is owed to the faithful gardeners of the Americas. The simple gifts on the Thanksgiving table-- the sweet potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie-- all have their roots in the wonderful agricultural heritage of the Americas.