It Takes a Nation—and Then Some—to Make the All-American Meal
Independence, Iowa, is a heartland town that takes its namesake holiday very seriously. Since 1860, Independence Day has been marked by a parade through town, followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence and tons of tournaments: horseshoes, beanbags, volleyball, you name it. And, yes, at the end of the day, fireworks explode over the nearby Wapsipinicon River.
The true-blue holiday celebrations aren’t, however, all-American. When it’s time to eat, Independence finds itself not just in the middle of the country but in the middle of the vast global supply chain—just like every other American town—as it celebrates the Fourth of July.
The story of the American Revolution is about imports in its own way—before we became Americans, we were imported from England and elsewhere as colonizers. But while we celebrate our break from British rule, our modern food chain isn’t exactly worthy of fireworks. Thanks to quirks of capitalism, free trade, and globalization, much of what we eat comes from far-flung places, traveling thousands of miles and expending untold amounts of fuel, electricity for refrigeration, and labor that may or may not meet international health and safety standards.
There may be no other way to get vanilla, sugar, black pepper, and other tropical crops whose flavors are central to culinary Americana. But if you’re eating tomatoes, corn, and other summer produce in July—to celebrate American independence to boot—do the patriotic thing and buy local.
Despite being the world’s top producer of beef, the U.S. is a net importer of beef—and it’s because of your Fourth of July hamburgers and hot dogs. Our ground beef is just too fatty, so we import leaner foreign beef to mix in. This beef—several billion pounds a year—comes from Australia, New Zealand, and Central and South American countries such as Nicaragua, Brazil, and Uruguay.
You’ll want to season that ground beef with pepper, and if it’s worth its salt it’ll be from Tellicherry, a city on the Malabar coast of Kerala in India. If you’re using Morton’s Kosher Salt, the salt was likely mined on the 300,000 acres on the Bahamian island of Great Inagua that produces about a million pounds of salt per year—the second largest saline operation in North America.
Miles from Australia to Independence, Iowa: 9,596
Miles from Tellicherry to Independence, Iowa: 8,601
Miles from Great Inagua to Independence, Iowa: 1,827
The onion is an essential companion of the burger; its natural sweetness brings out the savoriness of good-quality beef and throws out chemicals called lachrymators (the ones that make you cry) that open up your nasal passages and prime your taste buds to make your meat taste more, well, meaty. Because onions are small and their tissues leave little or no trace, there is no conclusive opinion about the exact location and time of their birth. Many archaeologists, botanists, and food historians believe onions originated in central Asia. Other research suggests they were first grown in Iran and West Pakistan. But your onion is likely a Pacific Northwesterner through and through, coming from Washington, Idaho, or Oregon. Unless it’s a sweet onion with traceable, lawful provenance, like Vidalia, which must be grown in Georgia, or a Walla Walla from Washington state (the seeds of which, the story goes, were brought to the state by a French soldier, Peter Pieri, from Corsica to the Walla Walla Valley in the late 1800s).
Miles from eastern Oregon to Independence, Iowa: 1,678.9
Miles from Vidalia, Georgia, to Independence, Iowa: 1,048
Miles from Corsica to Independence, Iowa: 4,806
Fresh-market tomatoes are produced in every state, with commercial-scale production in about 20 states. If your tomatoes aren’t from the farmers market, they’re probably from Florida or California, which have for decades been the leading producers, annually accounting for two-thirds to three-fourths of all commercially produced fresh-market tomatoes in the United States.
Watermelon is thought to have originated in the Kalahari Desert of Africa, where a melon cousin still grows wild. The first recorded watermelon harvest occurred nearly 5,000 years ago in Egypt and is depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics on the walls of ancient buildings. Watermelon seeds have also been found at Twelfth Dynasty sites and in the tomb of Tutankhamun. If it’s a seedless watermelon you’ve bought—better for slicing and eating out of hand—it’s probably made its way from Nogales, Mexico. But if it’s homegrown, it might be from Georgia, California, Florida, or Texas.
Miles from Valley of the Kings (Luxor, Egypt) to Independence, Iowa: 6,548
Potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the United States (not including sweet potatoes), contributing about 15 percent of farm sales receipts for vegetables. Over 50 percent of potato sales are to processors for french fries, chips, dehydrated potatoes, and other potato products; the remainder goes to the fresh market. Suddenly your mayonnaise-laden potato salad seems downright wholesome! Your potatoes were most likely grown in Idaho, still the leading producer, but they came a long way to get there. Immigrants to North America from South America and Europe wanted a yellow-fleshed potato (not our floury all-purpose). You can thank the potato-breeding program of the University of Guelph in Canada for breeding the Yukon Gold in the 1960s. A cross between a Peruvian potato and a breed from North Dakota, it received a Canadian license in 1980 and was soon being exported to the United States.
Miles from the University of Guelph to Independence, Iowa: 749
Historians can’t seem to agree if mayonnaise originated in Spain or France, and in the U.S. we have our own divide. In 1905, German immigrant Richard Hellmann opened up a delicatessen in New York City, where he began to sell his mayonnaise. At the same time that Hellmann’s Mayonnaise was flourishing in the East, Best Foods, Inc., introduced mayonnaise to Californian consumers. As Hellmann’s expanded on the East Coast, Best Foods was a hit in the West. In 1932, Richard Hellmann Inc. was acquired by Best Foods, and the same product still goes by different names on different sides of the country: Hellmann’s Mayonnaise is sold east of the Rockies (and also in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and Canada), and Best Foods Mayonnaise is sold west (and also in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand). Regardless of which brand you're buying, there’s a good chance that one of the key raw ingredients came from Iowa, where one out of every five eggs in the country are laid.
Heinz uses more processed tomatoes—approximately 2.5 million tons per year—than any other company in the world. And with 62 percent of the American ketchup market share, it is the condiment king. The tomatoes are from California, where 96 percent of domestic tomatoes grown for processing are raised. The high fructose corn syrup is local if your barbecue is in Independence, Iowa, as the state is the country’s leading producer of corn, but nearly all of Heinz’s ketchup is made at a plant in Fremont, Ohio.
Miles from Fremont, Ohio, to Independence, Iowa: 538
Sweet corn is a genetic mutation of field corn and was reportedly first grown in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. The naturally occurring mutation causes kernels to store more sugar than starchy field corn. The first commercial variety was introduced in 1779. To capture maximum sweetness, sweet corn is harvested before it fully matures, while the sugar content is still high. “Supersweet” hybrid varieties have been developed over the past 25 years. These genetic advances have improved the quality of both fresh and processed products. Supersweet varieties offer longer shelf life, extended marketing windows, and the delivery of higher-quality products throughout the year. Sweet corn is harvested on more than 28,000 farms across all 50 states. Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, Florida, and New York are the largest producers of sweet corn. However, Florida, California, and Georgia are the largest producers of fresh sweet corn. The production of sweet corn for processing is heavily concentrated in the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin are the leading producers. Fresh sweet corn is typically sold in daily spot markets and is highly seasonal.
Miles from nearest roadside corn stand to Independence, Iowa: Less than 10/likely local
Seasoned with dry mustard, your yellow canister might have originally come from England (and before that, the Fertile Crescent—there’s talk of mustard in the Bible). But Colman’s is now owned by multinational Unilever. The cabbage is likely Californian, and the mustard seed itself may have been grown in Canada, the world’s leading producer.
Miles from Salinas, California, to Independence, Iowa: 2,035
If you bought sweet cherries for your pie—because you like to snack on them as you pit—they’re probably from Washington state, by far the top producer in the U.S. But if you bought tart or sour cherries, they’re from Michigan, where 99 percent of the harvest is processed, mostly into frozen cherries.
Miles from Traverse City, Michigan, to Independence, Iowa: 587
Vanilla is America’s favorite ice cream flavor, and America’s third-best-selling brand, Blue Bell, has also been eaten aboard the International Space Station and at Camp David. Native to Mexico and finicky to a fault, vanilla can only grow 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator, and most of it now comes from Madagascar. It’s the second-most expensive spice after saffron. Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s, maker of what Consumer Reports has named one of America’s best flavors of vanilla ice cream, is in the process of having all its ingredients certified as Fair Trade Certified and GMO-free.
Miles from the International Space Station to Earth’s atmosphere: 220
Miles from Madagascar to Independence, Iowa: 9,524
Miles from Ben & Jerry’s (Waterbury, Vermont) to Independence, Iowa: 1,199