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From spam to spices, the 10 foods that changed the world


These days we take it for granted that we can just head down to the supermarket for all our culinary needs... but food shopping was not always so simple.

Our hunger for survival, as well as new and tastier fare, had unexpected side effects that moulded history. Whether it be the fuel for revolution, or the bread broken between adversaries, grub has always been something taken seriously throughout history.

Now History Revealed magazine has detailed how 10 foods changed the world...

Bread

The French royal family dined lavishly while the peasants starved to death.

That all changed one October morning in 1789 when riots erupted in Paris over outrageous bread price rises.

Women marched on Versailles, gathering more supporters on the way. They ransacked the palace and forced the King to come back to Paris – a key event in the French Revolution.

FACT: There is no evidence that Queen Marie Antoinette actually said of the starving masses: “Let them eat cake”.

Tea

Nothing says British Imperialism like a hot brew. But in 1773 some Bostonians took issue with the taxes imposed on tea, coining the slogan “no taxation without representation”.

In protest, they threw hundreds of chests of British tea into the harbour, an event that became known as the Boston Tea Party. The conflict developed into the American Revolutionary War.

FACT: Some 45 tons of tea in 342 containers were thrown overboard – worth £10,000 then but about £1.4million today.

Bananas

There’s a reason some nations are called “banana republics”.

When US farmers grew tired of trying to grow tropical fruit in their own chilly climes, they realised it would be easier (and cheaper) to grow it in Latin America.

US fruit companies moved into countries like Honduras, gaining themselves a great deal of political power.

In 1911, when the Cuyamel Fruit Co fell out with the government of Honduras, it helped to arrange a coup that eventually overthrew the president.

FACT: The CIA carried out a coup in Guatemala in 1954 at the urging of the United Fruit Company.

Corn

The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 and struggled to survive. They found the land inhospitable, the climate bitter.

They may have perished had Native Americans not taught them to grow corn, a staple in the New World.

To celebrate their survival, the settlers and indigenous people held a joint feast in 1621, now believed to be the first Thanksgiving. Sadly, the harmony would not last.

FACT: The Wampanoag tribe taught them to fertilise soil with shad, a type of herring.

Honey

The sweet concoction carefully crafted by bees was loved in the pre-sugarcane world, including by the Romans, who had made a number of enemies.

In Turkey, a tribe decided to get its own back on the legions by placing honeycombs made from poisonous rhododendrons along the route.

The Romans lapped it up, suffered hysterical fits, and were then easily defeated by the locals.

FACT: In ancient Egypt, honey was used to treat wounds.

Potatoes

Introduced to Europe from South America in the 16th century, poor folks loved the starchy and cheap spud.

In Ireland, the potato came to form the basis of a peasant’s diet, as a result of harsh British laws.

Sadly, blight swept the island, destroying the crop, killing about a million people. Millions more migrated from Ireland to the Americas – creating the Irish diaspora.

FACT: Ireland’s population fell by up to a quarter due to emigration.

Salt

There’s more to humble table salt than meets the eye. Not only does it add flavour to food, it can also be used as a preservative or even as an antiseptic.

It was so prized by ancient peoples that it could be used as payment – this is where the Latin word ‘salary’ originates.

The Romans had other uses for it, too, including as a weapon of war – they would put salt on the soil of conquered towns to prevent any plant growth.

FACT: Roman general Scipio Africanus is said to have ordered the salting of the earth of Carthage after the city’s defeat in 146BC.

Spam

This cheap tinned luncheon meat, invented in 1927, helped the US keep its troops fed in wartime.

Known affectionately as “ham that didn’t pass its physical”, nearly 50 million tons of it was ship­ped to Europe.

Russian leader Khrush­chev said: “Without Spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our armies.”

FACT: The word ‘spam’ for unwanted emails comes from a Monty Python sketch where every dish in a restaurant featured the meat.

Spice

Since antiquity, Europeans and Arabs travelled to Asia in search of seasonings, creating powerful trading kingdoms along the way.

So when the Ottomans blockaded the traditional land route, the Portuguese had to find another route.

Vasco da Gama volunteered and became the first European to reach India by sea, ushering in widespread European influence there.

FACT: It was long believed spices were used to hide the taste of rotting meat but historians no longer believe it as spices were too dear to waste on bad meat.

Sugar

The saying goes “sugar, spice, and all things nice” but this sticky treat has a rather unsavoury history.

When European settlers realised they could grow it in the American colonies and gain vast profits they needed cheap labour. So began the brutal slave trade.

FACT: The Triangular Trade saw UK textiles taken to Africa in exchange for slaves who were taken to the Caribbean and traded for sugar which was exported to Britain. Up to four million slaves were taken to the Carib­­bean.