"Last Night for Dinner I Had." A Lesson in History and Economics

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Those of us in the trenches know that there are three things that will immediately make a seventh grader sit up and take notice - when the discussion turns to money, sex or food. For an article in an economics journal, money would be too obvious. And other than some tantalizing tidbits about Caesar and Cleopatra, I will gladly leave the birds, bees and habits of Type-A political leaders to the realm of the science teacher's classroom. That leaves food as an easy and ever interesting subject to entice and educate our charges to the world of history and economics.

When I began to teach the Japanese curriculum my first full year of teaching, a teacher's aide brought me an abundance of Japanese knick-knacks from her home. At the bottom of the box was a container of ready-to-eat, dried seaweed cut into strips. Discussing Japanese customs and cuisine, I casually took out the container, opened it, explaining what it was and how it is used and, then, proceeded to snack on one of the strips. This display was met with a chorus of 'ewwwww's and 'gross'es. What happened next has been repeated every year since - namely a line of students who want to try it themselves! Many still think it tastes gross, some run out of the room to spit it out and, always, one or two will come back for a second strip, because they genuinely like it or they simply want to out-gross their classmates.

Whether the discussion is about the recipe for Roman fish sauce, hunting in MesoAmerica or the cuisine of the Middle Ages, food is always an attention-getter. Food has always enjoyed a revered status in the study of history. Its development helps explain human development - the shift from nomadic gatherers to sedentary farmers; the advanced technologies in farming that allowed specialization of labor; and according to Umberto Eco, the cultivation of the bean in Europe, which allowed its people to become stronger, live longer and repopulate a continent ravaged by diseases and barbarism. With this in mind I propose some ideas on teaching the seventh grade economic standard found in the California Social Studies Content Standards 7.11.2:

Discuss the exchange of plants, animals, technology, culture and ideas among Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the major economic and social effects on each continent.

I will use the Columbian Exchange as a tool to present this standard. The Columbian Exchange is simply the transfer of native crops across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in history.

Christopher Columbus has been regarded as a hero and murderer, a genius and an idiot, a man of religious zeal and an unscrupulous egomaniac. But, for our purposes, he is the one who opened the door to this fantastic and terrible exchange of ideas, religions, culture and food that continue to be deeply felt in our world today.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that, "the greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture"(NMSU). One only needs to look at the staple foods of people around the globe to see the ever-lasting effect the Columbian Exchange has on our world today. To reinforce this point, the first lesson idea is simply to assign countries from around the Atlantic to students and have them determine those countries' chief agricultural crops and the foods they eat as part of their staple diet. Next, students investigate whether these foods are native to that region, continent, hemisphere or whether they were brought over after the Columbian Exchange.

A week before the lessons on exploration begin ask students to keep a week-long diet journal as a homework assignment. After the Columbian Exchange is discussed, students can examine their diets to see how much of their food is native to the Western hemisphere and how much resulted from the Columbian Exchange.

Tying the two lessons together, students are surprised to discover that rice arrived in Mexico after 1492, the Irish had no knowledge of potatoes and Italians never saw a tomato until after Columbus' journey. …