11 Facts from the American Museum of Natural History's New Food-Themed Exhibit

A hydrophonic vertical growing system, designed by Windowfarms, in the museum's Weston Pavilion. Photo Courtesy AMNH.

On November 17, the American Museum of Natural History will open a new exhibit, Our Global Kitchen, which examines how food is grown, modified, transported, tasted, and celebrated. "Food is intimately familiar to all of us—and experienced as a daily social ritual—but the complex global system that produces it has critical implications for the health of humans and of Earth's ecological systems," Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum, said at a preview of the exhibit. Visitors will get a chance to see what an Aztec market looked like, participate in tastings, sit at the tables of historical figures, examine various farming practices from around the globe, and learn how hunger and obesity exist side by side.

Here are 11 things we learned during our visit.

1. Five species of beans have been bred into approximately 40,000 varieties.

2. Cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi are all actually the same species: Brassica oleracea.

3. In ancient Aztec markets, cocoa beans were currency, not candy. Thirty cacao beans would buy you a rabbit.

Photo Courtesy AMNH.

4. The bumps on your tongue, called papillae, aren't actually tastebuds—your tastebuds are actually inside those bumps. The more papillae you have, the better you're able to taste—in fact, if you have 30 or more papillae per quarter-inch, you're a super-taster!

5. In parts of Asia and the Middle East, sheep are bred to have fat tails that are so big that they have to be dragged in special carts.

6. Almost every apple you eat is cloned in a process called grafting—live branches from trees that produce sweet apples are attached to the trunks of other trees, which produce apples that are clones of the first tree.

7. Wild chickens like the Red Junglefowl produce approximately 15 eggs a year; domesticated chickens produce 200 to 300 eggs.

8. Americans didn’t start using forks until the mid-1800s,. Before that, they either stabbed food with knives, or ate with their hands. (Europeans adopted forks much earlier.)

9. Young oysters are called spat; 90 percent of Europe's oysters are raised in France at aquatic farms like the one shown in the diorama below.

10. One variety of potato was the primary food in Ireland before the potato famine. It was called the Lumper.

11. In high and middle income countries, each consumer wastes approximately 187 pounds of food each year. In low income countries, that number is 33 pounds.

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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