Photograph by Henry Hargreaves and Caitlin Levin
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An artistic representation of the U.S. features corn in many forms—including cobs, kernels, and chips.

Photograph by Henry Hargreaves and Caitlin Levin

In These Colorful ‘Food Maps,’ Nations Are What They Eat

The United States made of corn, Italy composed of tomatoes—these maps use ingredients to show countries’ staples.

This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Food for thought: How does one ingredient become linked to one place?

That’s one question artists Henry Hargreaves and Caitlin Levin had in mind when they hatched their “food map” series—a collection of country and continent maps made using ingredients synonymous with those regions. Think India rendered in spices, New Zealand in kiwifruit, South America in citrus.

In some of these cases and in many others around the globe, the foods most commonly associated with a place aren’t actually native to that spot. Tomatoes, for example, come from South America, yet today they’re an integral part of Italian cuisine. That association began before 1548, says Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, when “the first written account of a tomato outside of the Americas was documented—in Tuscany.”

For their map of the United States (above), Hargreaves and Levin chose as their medium an assemblage of corn varieties and corn-derived products. And with good reason: Today no other country produces more of the crop, which made its way north from Mexico some 7,000 years ago and then—thanks to its high adaptability and versatility—proliferated.

Indeed, says Iowa State University agronomist Mark Licht, corn now grows throughout the U.S. in every state from New Hampshire to Hawaii.