Oct 10, 2008

Culinary courier

Columbus' historic voyages changed the world's menu

By Bill Daley

UNITED STATES. Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2008

In honor of Columbus Day, we celebrate the New World's culinary treasures in a special section. What if Christopher Columbus had missed the New World? For those of us whose families hailed from outside the Americas that would have meant, among other things, no ketchup, no chocolate bars, no potato chips, not even green bean almondine. Whether that would have been for good or ill is, like the impact of Columbus' voyages, still open to debate among culinarians and historians. There can be no argument that the arrival of the grand "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" in the Bahamas on Oct. 12, 1492, sparked a food migration of unprecedented global scale. Plants and animals of the New World were carried off to the Old and vice versa.

The Genovese seafarer never found the gold, spices and pearls of the fabled East he was looking for but, instead, he found treasures of another sort: haricot beans, corn, chili peppers, cassava, guava, papaya and pineapple.

What happened next is called the "Columbian Exchange." It continues to affect what you eat every day, from the venerable all-American recipes handed down from your grandmother to the latest in high-tech fusion foods served up at the world's best restaurants.

Columbus' voyages, and those of the explorers, plunderers and adventurers who followed, distributed the foods of the New World around the globe, revolutionizing diets, fostering population growth and creating new economic markets.

Thanks to this movement, tomatoes eventually turned up in Italy, potatoes populated Ireland and chili peppers sprang forth in China's Sichuan province. Conversely, the migration put the pork in the Mexican taco al pastor, turned fried chicken into the South's Sunday sacrament and led to that special entity known as the Chicago steakhouse.

The initial flurry of exchanges happened breathtakingly fast, as Raymond Sokolov explained in his book, "Why We Eat What We Eat: How Columbus Changed the Way the World Eats."

"Within 50 years the Spanish had established full-scale European agriculture in the West Indies, Mexico, Peru and the Caribbean coast of South America," Sokolov wrote. "The Spanish had also opened a regular trade with China from their base in the Philippines. Food and food ideas flowed freely between Seville and Asia on the same ships that carried goods from China and the Americas to Europe and on the return trip brought European necessities for the colonists."

New World foods advanced on multiple fronts. Take the humble chili, which Columbus brought back as a "substitute" for the valuable black peppercorns Europe so desired. It is said that chilies were introduced into Hungary by the nearby Bulgarians, who got them from the Turks, who in turn got the peppers from Portuguese traders. The chilies were turned into the famous Hungarian spice, paprika. Meanwhile, chilies had made it to remote Nepal by 1629 from plants grown in the East Indies, according to Waverley Root's "Food: An Authoritative Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World." At the same time, peppers were migrating inward from the ports of China to the provinces of Sichuan and Hunan. As Fuchsia Dunlop notes in her Sichuan cookbook, "Land of Plenty," chilies there are still called hai jiao, or "sea pepper," to denote their foreign origin.

Some of the new foods were luxurious curiosities. The pineapple was so prized that Charles II was famously painted in 1675 receiving the first fruit grown in England. Pope Clement VII was the lucky recipient of New World beans in 1528. A member of the Medici family, the pontiff sent the beans off to his hometown of Florence. Root notes that cultivation spread through the region and the Tuscans were soon being called mangiafagiol, or "bean eaters," by other Italians far less sold on this newfangled crop from the Americas.

Key to acceptance of these new foods was often some sense of familiarity, said Sandy Oliver, editor and publisher of "Food History News."

"It has to do with, in part, our adaptive nature and it also has to do with where the food fits in the cuisine," Oliver said. "In other words, it's hard to get a food to catch on if there isn't something about it that seems familiar to the people who are adapting it.

"The tomato is a good example of a vegetable that took a while to catch on. It baffled people. Potatoes were easy because people ate root vegetables. Everyone knew a bean when they saw it. Corn, when ground into a grain, acts like other grains. It took a while to figure out how to work with tomatoes. If you were in Northern Europe, tomatoes were a big pain in the butt. If you couldn't get them to ripen, it was just wasted space in the garden."

Yet, when the tomato finally caught on, it became a cultural and culinary icon, first in Europe and then, thanks to Immigration, in North America.

A number of the New World plants, like tomatoes, took root so deeply in the soils of the Old World that many people are surprised now to learn these European staples originated in the Americas.

Further blurring the line of origin was the constant movement of goods and people, enslaved and free, across the world's oceans. Foods from the Americas were often reintroduced elsewhere in the New World and, thanks to breeding and hybridizing, these foods sometimes came in different forms or had different uses.

The potato, for example, was shipped from the Peruvian highlands to Europe in the 16th Century and ended up in North America sometime in the late 17th Century. Peanuts followed a similar route, from South America to Africa to North America. Cassava became a beloved staple crop in Africa while turning into that oft-dreaded dessert, tapioca pudding, here in the United States.

"It's a combination of people taking things with them, both plants and animals, and using the ideas in their heads and the skills in their hands," said food historian Barbara Wheaton, the honorary curator of the culinary collection at Radcliffe Institute's Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass.

"If they saw a new foodstuff it took a while for them to figure out what to do with it. If it looked like something they knew, say, green beans look like asparagus, they'd cook it like asparagus."

She said a new food's popularity often revolved around the questions of flavor and health. She points to what happened to chocolate after the conquistadors invaded what is now known as Mexico.

"Virtually all the early literature of chocolate is concerned about whether it was good for you or bad for you, and could you drink chocolate before communion?" she said.

Sokolov notes that before Columbus, Europeans ate much the same food; the so-called "national" cuisines of Europe evolved in no small part by New World foods.

"The French, Italian and Spanish food 'traditions' we now think of as primeval all sprang up relatively recently and would be unrecognizable without the American foods sent across the water, mostly in Spanish boats," he wrote.


Related links

Pecan: Love it or leave it, it's a distinctive nut
Corn: Amazing maize travels the world
Squash: A triumph after a mistaken identity
Cranberry: Tiny berry packs powerful punch
Sweet potato: Centuries of sweet nutrition
Tomato: The well-traveled orb's adventures around the world
Chilies: Columbus performs the old switcheroo
Potato: A tuber with staying power
Chocolate: The food we hold sacred
Good Eating: The Columbian Exchange
The American larder

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