Old World/New World Foods: The Columbian Exchange

We’ve all done lessons on differences between the Old World and the New World, but do students really understand what life at the dinner table could have been like pre-hamburgers? No, no, I think not. This idea will bring the concept home in a to-go box only a teacher can provide. After an introductory lesson on what Columbus and other Europeans brought to the Americas in the 15th-17th centuries, have each student bring in a can (or other non-perishable container) of food. The fewer ingredients listed on the food item, the better. Have each child place the food on the East side of the room if it’s an “Old World” food and on the West side if it’s a “New World” food. If it’s a combination, place it in the middle. What’s that you say? Your room isn’t labeled N, E, S, and W? Never Eat Soggy Wheaties in my presence again! Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, here’s a quick run-down on which type of food is which: basically, if the food is mainly tomato, chili pepper, potato, turkey, corn, squash, bean, avocado or chocolate it’s a New World food. If it’s pork, beef, chicken, citrus, watermelon or sugar, it’s Old World. Wait, oranges didn’t originate in the state of Florida??? No, they certainly did not. Appalling but true! Older students can do some research to determine in which ‘World’ a food originated. Be sure to discuss how the exchange of foods completely changed the eating habits of everyone. Don’t forget to mention that the Aztecs ate chocolate without sugar (what were they thinking); it was the Europeans that eventually added the sweetness.

There are several things you can do after this graphic lesson: make a unique class soup (should be really delicious), donate foods to a school canned food drive, eat the food during your planning time (yum/desperate) then use the cans for crayon holders, or discreetly give the food to a needy school family. I like that last one best - think globally, act locally.

An interesting extension activity is to discuss how technology used in the 1400’s and 1500’s and beyond allowed the Columbian Exchange to occur, for example:  the discovery of the lodestone’s magnetic properties, the compass, the sextant, the telescope, star charts, and the specialized ship stabilization mechanisms used to bring horses and cows across the ocean. (Drawings of that cool contraption are available online.) You can find a quick and easy way for students to create their own magnetic compasses in Social Studies Weekly.

Or, have students brainstorm the menu of a typical Thanksgiving feast, and discuss which foods are Old World, New World, or a combination. Then, (ask a sweet classroom volunteer to) make a pie for the class, to demonstrate how mixtures of Old and New have made foods wonderful.

Another extension is, “The Global Candy Bar”:  get any candy bar and have students research and mark a map to show the origins of each basic ingredient to show how global exchanges have affected food availability, trade and consumption. Remember, chocolate is important in American history. Push pins and string going from origin to market make a great demo. Of course you will need to get enough candy bars for the whole class. On second thought, maybe just get enough for the teacher. Enjoy!

Thanks for reading,

Monica Sherwin

Ormond Beach