A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

11 Exotic Origins of Everyday Things

Updated: Jan. 06, 2023

So THAT's where poker came from.

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Consider the heritage of one American icon: blue jeans. When you track them back, denim’s roots go a good deal deeper than the cowboy plains, stretching in some shape or form back to the looms of 16th-century French weavers in Nîmes (Get it? De Nîmes = denim).

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Before the loafer became the shoe of choice for American teens in the ’50s, Norwegian dairy farmers wore leather slip-ons in cattle enclosures called loafing areas. A cobbler then took the lace-free footwear to market, basing his model on the local style. Bass introduced its version of the Norwegian classic to Americans in 1936. Today, loafers can be found on the feet of leisure lovers everywhere.

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The Panama hat

The Panama hat is from Ecuador. Woven from the straw of the toquilla plant, this lightweight, wide-brimmed piece of headgear provided an ideal shield from the tropical sun. Why Panama, then? After the hat made its way up from South America to be shipped to Europe and North America, it took its name from the Panamanian ports from which it sailed. Panama hats received a fashion boost when President Teddy Roosevelt donned one on a visit to the Panama Canal.

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Though it claims many fore-bears, including the German pochen, the French poque, and possibly the Iranian game of as nas, poker as we know it was born in the U.S.A. From the formerly French city of New Orleans, it traveled north aboard the legendary riverboats of the Mississippi in the early 19th century and caught on across the country. By the 1830s, the 20-card deck had grown to 52 to include more players and eventually caused more people to lose their shirts than did the Great Depression.

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Stone Age vintners squashed grapes in the region of Turkey and Armenia in 6000 BC, and the Sumerians and Egyptians were brewing beer in large quantities by 3500 BC. But an eighth-century alchemist in what we now know as Iraq is credited with inventing the process of distillation-heating fermented liquids from which pure alcohol is siphoned off. Hence, the cocktail, causing happiness and havoc the world over.

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Limes originated in Indonesia and Malaysia and were first cultivated in Southeast Asia and India. Arab traders scattered the citrus, which finally rolled into Europe during the Crusades. Then Spanish colonizers brought limes to the New World, where they flourished with zest.

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While the ancient Greeks wielded large, two-pronged tools to carve and serve meat, seventh-century Middle Eastern potentates were the first to bring a fork to their lips. Around the 11th century, the first fork reached a Venetian table in the hand of a Byzantine princess, to the horror of local priests, who maintained that God had invented fingers for eating. It took more than 500 years for Italians to adopt the utensil, which raises the question, How did they twirl pasta before?

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As far back as 1000 AD, Ethiopians chewed the seeds and berries of the coffee plant for its stimulant effects. Nearby Yemen was the first to cultivate and roast the beans for brewing-Sufi mystics there used it to enhance their spiritual experience. Coffee was shipped throughout the Arab world from the Yemeni port of Mocha and made its way to Europe in the 17th century.

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Orange carrots

The Afghans ate purple carrots some 5,000 years ago. Since then, carrots have been cultivated in a wide variety of colors and sizes-small, medium, and large (one Asian variety is three feet long). The modern vegetable, the stuff of Peter Rabbit, was likely developed by the Dutch in the 17th century and has been adding crunch to party trays and turning carrot acolytes orange ever since.

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The Mayans of Honduras first cultivated cacao beans to make chocolate. They ground the beans and mixed in water, maize, and sometimes even chilies to create a bitter beverage they found delightful. European settlers were considerably less enthusiastic when they arrived in the New World. But when Spanish explorers brought the chocolate drink back to Europe and sugar was blended in-ahí está! Europeans couldn’t get enough. The U.K. company J. S. Fry & Sons produced the first chocolate bars in the mid-19th century.

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Sugarcane was first cultivated in India to make crystallized sugar more than 3,000 years ago (the sugarcane plant itself originated in New Guinea, where it was chewed). The treat reached Persia around 500 BC, but Europe remained unsweetened until Arabs brought it to Spain 1,200 years later. Even after Arabs introduced sugar in Europe, it remained too expensive for ordinary folk. When prices finally fell and the appetite for stimulant drinks grew, sugar hit the mainstream. By the 18th century, it had become a staple in the West, and our waistlines haven’t been the same since.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest