Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Agriculture and cuisine: different subjects or the same?

Hendrick Danckerts: "Royal Gardener John Rose Presenting a Pineapple to King Charles II," 1675 (Wikimedia)
I've been reading about the introduction of European and Asian food plants and many domestic animal species to the Spanish colonies of the new world, and about the introduction of new world plants and a few animals to old world diners and farmers. I've read quite a bit on this subject in the past as well. In general, there are two approaches: either authors concentrate on agriculture, and with it sometimes on nutrition, or on cuisine.

Agriculturally focused histories treat the development and spread of agriculture in the new world and eventually beyond it. Some authors describe the initial process of domestication of certain plant species (like corn or vanilla). Some study the biochemistry of ancient species and compare them to archaeological finds or to wild native plants. Others focus on the current state of food production, use, and availability, viewing the origin and spread of plants or animals as at most background material. The timing of the spread of each food plant into new areas, its nutritional value to the population that consumed it, commodity or market issues, and the plant's adaptability to growing in new areas are critical factors.

What I've been reading
Books that cover the topics of agriculture and its effect on food ways include these: Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World, a collection of essays edited by Foster and Cordell; The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred Crosby; and Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and foods changed America by William Dunmire.

More of what I've been reading
In the epilogue to Chilies to Chocolate Gary Paul Nabhan acknowledge the division that I'm exploring here. He wrote: "Perhaps the complexity of crop evolution makes us lose sight of the concurrent cultural evolution of culinary traditions: changes in grinding, roasting brewing, baking,  and curing techniques, not to mention customs of spicing and serving prepared foods."

Nabhan cites a number of recipes and culinary techniques known to have characterized pre-Columbian cuisine. However, most books seem to focus on one area at a time -- how crops are grown, how foods are used in recipes, how they are adopted for nutritional value, how they spread from culture to culture, and how new flavors were added to familiar ones.

Nabhan has written many books on food, cuisine, agriculture, and ethnobotany of the American Southwest. His point of view is political as well as scientific -- he's very concerned about the loss of biodiversity among native American plants, about climate change, and about mistreatment of native peoples worldwide. An author with a complementary point of view is Sophie Coe, who wrote two books about the sources, uses, and transmission of new world foods: America's First Cuisines and The True History of Chocolate.

I reviewed this book here.
As do Coe and Nabhan, authors interested in cuisine trace influences on food preparations such as the use of spice blends in East Asian, Middle Eastern, North African, Spanish, and later Mexican cooking (which I mentioned in an earlier post). They explore how taste and familiarity of species determined which plants or animals were readily integrated into regional concepts of food, such as the rapid acceptance of corn or the reluctant acceptance of tomatoes. 

An important element of several essays in Chilies to Chocolate is to show how diners and cooks at various points in history believed that foods should be cooked, presented, and eaten and thus what new foods could fit into their view. For example, new world chile peppers satisfied the original explorers' quest for spicy flavor, so they spread very readily as an addition to familiar cuisines in the old world. The nutritional value of the potato was obvious to some Europeans, but its unfamiliarity and ugly appearance made its spread difficult at first -- then of course it became too common in some places, notoriously in Ireland. Tomatoes and to some extent avocados now appear in virtually all produce markets worldwide, but required still longer to be accepted as part of European/American cuisine.

Van Gogh "The Potato Eaters"
Native American food that became a European staple
Staple new world foods, such as the potato and corn, rapidly made major changes in the diets of Europe, Africa, and Asia; by the sixteenth to eighteenth century these became standard in cuisines of Europe or the totally Europeanized American settlements. New world beans evidently spread readily but silently, joining the few bean species that existed in Europe so effectively that their origin had to be rediscovered in the 19th century.

Some exotic foods from the new world actually changed European tastes rather than moving into a niche in what was already being cooked. Vanilla, chocolate, and pineapple were like nothing in existing old world cuisine. The latter was very slowly accepted in Europe, first grown in royal hothouses as illustrated above; eventually becoming a curiosity and then a luxury food, but never a staple and never integrated the way that corn, chiles, or potatoes were.

Agriculturally oriented writers ask, how could new world species be cultivated in the old world? As with acceptance into European or Asian diets, adaptability of plants for old world agriculture varied. Potatoes, native to the high Andes, turned out to be extremely flexible; the potato, with its many varieties, adapted to many climates. Chiles and corn could adapt to a range of temperature, day-length, and rainfall and now grow in places as diverse as India and Michigan. Chocolate now grows in many tropical climates while vanilla is extremely picky about the latitude where it grows and needs special insect pollinators. Finding new places to cultivate vanilla was difficult, though most of the world's supply of vanilla today grows in the old world, not in Mexico. Early horticultural interest in the pineapple, which I perversely think of as Hawaiian, was to see who could get it to grow fruit in a greenhouse: not a sign that it would go native in England! (Chilies to Chocolate p. 35 and p. 4)

Early West-Indian sugar mill -- old-world crop, new world resources, African slave labor (Smithsonian, no artist named)
The same questions of cuisine and agriculture concern writers who look at the introduction of old world foods into Mexico and other parts of the Spanish new world. Dunmire's Gardens of New Spain provides detailed documentation of each conquest, exploration, or colonizing move, and the plants that were introduced. He includes complete lists and descriptions of the transported plants, and mentions imported livestock and how the Spaniards introduced them to New Spain.

Rather than representing an interest in the new or the exotic, plants and animals that were brought to the Americas often represented European colonists' effort to preserve their former food ways; for example, the introduction of pigs, fruit trees, or wheat. Some introductions were motivated by desire to produce exports for the European market, like sugarcane.

A few old world plants like bananas and watermelons were immediately popular with the native population. Their cultivation resembled already existing species (watermelons can be cultivated in the same way as new world squashes). So they spread seamlessly, eventually seeming to be native to the Americas, Dunmire points out. Other writers, Nabhan, especially, stress how the remarkable variety of plant species in the Americas, and biodiversity at all levels down to individual farms and fields, was negatively disrupted by the introduction of European plants and growing methods.

European colonists actually spread some of the foods of Mexico and South America into North America, Dunmire shows. For example, Spanish settlers (along with many Indian and mestizo family members or employees) pushed quickly into New Mexico, later to California and Texas. These colonists not only brought with them European animals and plants but also such Mexican foods as chiles. Potato cultivation on the east coast of North America was introduced by Europeans as well.

Diego Rivera, "The Maize Festival" (Wiki Paintings)
Books books books! An important work on the relationship of new and old world food is Crosby's The Columbian Exchange, first published in 1973, which I mentioned above. Many very specific books cover parts of the topic: just on the potato, for example, one can read The History and Social Influence of the Potato by Redcliffe N. Salaman; Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent by John Reader;  Potato: A Global History by Andrew F Smith; and The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman. PLUS books about the Irish potato famine and other potato topics. Not to mention incidental information in huge numbers of cookbooks, many of which are dedicated to just potato recipes and lore. Similarly for chile peppers, chocolate, and tomatoes -- you can read about, say, the tomato's history in America or in Italy or else Barry Estabrook's political story of just our time, Tomatoland. I could go on and on.

Jean-√Čtienne Liotard, "The Chocolate Girl," 1745
One more artist's illustration of new-world food's success in Europe.
17th Century Herbal


Finally, an early group of interesting sources of information on food plants, which I often hear about in secondary sources, is Renaissance herbals, early cookbooks, and early books on medicinal plants. These were written before the current distinction between foods and drugs became firm, so the food and medicine could be handled as a single topic, but their combined interest in botany, agriculture, and cooking vastly predates the books I'm discussing.

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