Tuesday, October 09, 2007

What did Columbus Discover?

Everything Columbus did, someone else did first. Or they did it better. Millions of people – whole civilizations -- lived in North, Central, and South America and the Caribean for thousands of years before Columbus “discovered” them. The formulation “Columbus discovered America” is an insult to them – especially since most of them died when European disease flashed across the Americas.

Columbus wasn’t even the first European in the Americas. Vikings had once settled in Vinland, which is where you get if you keep going across the North Atlantic after you pass Iceland and Greenland. They beat Columbus by hundreds of years. But no one ever heard of the Viking settlement. A change in climate quickly made it unfeasible, and it was forgotten for centuries. Only a bit of recent archaeological evidence proves it ever happened.

When Columbus came back after his first voyage, everyone in Europe took notice of the news he brought with him. Portuguese, English, Italian, Dutch, and more Spanish explorers followed him. Pretty soon they were making their own voyages and starting settlements. European writers found the New World fascinating and challenging. Whole areas of theology and deep-seated beliefs had to be re-examined in reaction to the news of what Columbus had found. Formerly important trade routes between Asia and the Mediterranean suddenly were dwarfed by commerce in the newly discovered direction.

The biggest change was in what the Old World ate. The New World offered vast new farmlands for cultivating European wheat, sugar, and other products. By 1505, Spanish sugar plantations were already underway in Domenica. Ability to expand sugar production was one of many big New World effects. The European diet changed thanks to increased consumption of refined sugar and of rum distilled from sugar. On both sides of the Atlantic, a new fusion cooking started to develop, combining the best of old and new.

American natives had been brilliant at domestication of plants, quickly adaptable to European and Asian tastes. Tobacco smoking, totally new to Europeans, was discussed and tried in Spain within less than 10 years of Columbus’s return – the Inquisition is said to have punished a smoker by 1501.

In 1502 a Spanish ship captured a trading canoe on an island near Honduras. The canoe carried a load of an important medium of exchange among the native Americans: cocoa beans. The ship’s chroniclers noted this event, though they didn’t understand what they had found. However, during the exploration and conquest of Mexico, Europeans began to find out what the Mexican chocolate drink tasted like, as well as the use of cocoa as “happy money.” Europeans who conquered and settled Mexico became familiar with chocolate in the 16th century, though its consumption in Europe is not clearly documented until the following century. Thereafter, of course, chocolate became indispensible.

The Portuguese introduced chili pepper cultivation into India by 1542. Only 50 years had gone by since Columbus’s first voyage and first contact between Europeans and the new-world pepper (which had been in cultivation in Mexico for several thousand years by then). Peppers became associated with Eastern food and later were introduced to Europeans – who thought they were of Indian or Turkish origin. A spoonful of curry powder – which came to England from its colonies in the 18th century – contained spices from almost anyplace you could think of.

The New-World turkey – named for the wrong place – was another food that reached Europe from America by a circuitous route. While we call it the turkey, the French call it dinde – meaning from India.

In time, Europeans and Asians began to grow and eat tomatoes, potatoes, vanilla, and Indian corn. All made major changes in European tastes and nutrition. The Irish dependence on potatoes and the ensuing potato famine, for example, was at least in part a consequence of the “Discovery of America.”

Beginning with Columbus, how many times have peppers gone around the world? Mexican descendants of the Aztecs and Mayas today still use chili peppers as a main flavor in their cooking. Indian curry, Japanese curry, Szechwan stir-fries, hot Thai dishes, and North African harissa would all be unrecognizable without chili pepper. In Madrid, Spain, plates of tiny green grilled chili peppers are one of the tapas on offer to stylish crowds of office workers having a beer before heading home. Can you imagine a New Orleans oyster house without a bottle of Tabasco? Asian Indians brought spicy chili pepper cuisine with them as they went to work all over the British Empire, and so peppers returned to Jamaica and the Carribean in another new form.

Columbus had definitely proved that something more interesting than sea monsters lay beyond the Atlantic Ocean. If he and his supporters hadn’t persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella to bankroll him, another explorer would no doubt have soon found backing and have sailed across the Atlantic, touching off a similar series of changes. But Columbus was the one who did it.


Chef JP said...

Excellent post with a lot of in-depth facts. Say, have you ever read that book "Near A Thousand Tables" by Felipe Fernandez Armesto--it's a fascinating history of food and is a great read.

Mae Travels said...

I've read "Near A Thousand Tables," though I am much more enthusiastic about other food books -- I like to read books that focus on a single time, place, or ingredient. See the list in the earlier post below this one for some of my favorites.