NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You may know your barbecue, but do you know your barbecue history?

Maybe not so much, according to an exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

That exhibit, Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, is at the National Museum of American History showing not where popular summer dinner table favorites such as hamburgers and hot dogs come from in an assembly-line sense (do you really want to know that?), but where all that tasty food stands historically.

More specifically, it's all about where our most popular summer dining fare comes from, says Bruce Smith and Melinda Zeder, archaeologists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

So where did all those juicy, delicious barbecue-related favorites originate? Here's a historical look at your summer menu:

Beef: The museum says beef for burgers and steaks were lugged along to American shores by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. The beef came from "domesticated livestock" brought aboard ships by Spanish settlers. But cattle-as-beef foodstuffs actually date way back 10,000 years ago, when they were raised by Turkish ranchers and farmers. Beef really didn't make it to Great Britain until 5,000 years ago, the museum says.

Hot dogs: The Smithsonian pigs were domesticated and bred for their meat by farmers in the Near East also about 10,000 years ago, finally spreading to Western Europe 5,000 years later.

Chickens: That plump barbecue chicken you're about to sink your meat hooks into also has a history dating back thousands of years. The Smithsonian is less clear on the fowl issue, but does say that chickens appeared on dinner menus in Southeast Asia before spreading westward to the area that is now Israel, then to Western Europe, about 3,000 years ago.

Fruits and vegetables: What summer barbecue would be complete without some healthy fruits and vegetables to balance out all that meat and poultry? Native Asians and Europeans knew the drill, incorporating them into their diets about 8,000 years ago. South America brought tomatoes and potatoes to the table first, and they weren't exported north until the 1500s. Both proved immensely popular. "By 1781, Thomas Jefferson was serving tomatoes and French-fried potatoes at his dinner table," the exhibit says. "They were brought to Europe in the 1600s and arrived in North America around 1800 with European settlers."

The museum notes that watermelon was shipped to South and North America by the Spanish about 500 hundred years from central and southern Africa, "where it was quickly adopted by the Cherokee, Choctaw and other American Indian tribes," according to the museum.

All told, there's a long road dating back up to 10,000 years for the food on your summer table.

There's some comfort in knowing that long ago, native Asians and Middle Easterners thought about that second helping of barbecued beef, and, looking around to see if the coast was clear, reached across the table to help themselves.

In that regard, nothing much has changed in 10,000 years.

— By Brian O'Connell

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