Columbus: Benefactor Of World Cuisine?

November 17, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Let other writers dish the dirt on Columbus. As the 500th anniversary of his voyage to the Americas approaches we'll be getting a bellyful of icon-smashing, as the hero of school children and Italian-Americans is taken to task for polluting Paradise with imperialism, anti-Semitism, slavery and the plague. For starters.

Not by Raymond Sokolov, though.

As he writes in his new book "Why We Eat What We Eat," "I come to praise Columbus, not to harry his memory. I come to laud the most unassailably admirable of his achievements -- the diversification and betterment of the human diet."

Before 1492, the Italians had never seen a tomato, the Hungarians had never added paprika to their food, no French chef had ever prepared chocolate mousse and no Irishman had eaten a potato.

Not only had these items not made their way from the Americas to Europe, but what we have come to think of as "classical" national cuisines had yet to develop.

"Medieval European cooking didn't seem to have national boundaries, just as medieval Europe was the Holy Roman Empire. They were eating a drab diet with a lot of Oriental spices," explains Mr. Sokolov, the editor of the Wall Street Journal's "Arts and Leisure" section and author of several books about food.

"In early modern Europe," he continues, "fancy people were eating birds like heron and stork and crane. And they didn't have forks. People would come to the table with their own knives and hack at things, and pick them up with pieces of bread called trenchers. It was another world."

In the meantime, in the Americas, people were decidedly not eating what we have come to think of as Latin American or Caribbean cuisine. When Columbus landed, he recorded in his log the items he saw the locals consume, which included cassava and other mysterious root vegetables, and reptiles. Columbus may have given birth to an enduring cliche when he wrote that iguana "tastes like chicken."

When Columbus united the two worlds in 1492 he set in process a cross-fertilization of both food products and food ideas that transformed the lives of natives and colonists in the "new" world, and the Europeans who remained at home. The Americas contributed such staples as potatoes, tomatoes, maize (corn) and chili peppers, which revolutionized cuisines as far away as China. The Europeans, for their part, brought the livestock, chickens and dairy products that, combined with local products, made possible such classically Mexican dishes as cheese enchiladas, chicken tacos and pork-filled tamales. The Africans brought as slaves contributed their food notions, too, notably frying.

Europeans were surprisingly quick to adopt the unfamiliar products of an unfamiliar world.

"If you were going to a completely unexplored place, that no one like you had ever seen before, and it was filled with rare fruits and vegetables and flowers and animals, and you were working for a king, you would want to give a good show-and-tell when you got back," Mr. Sokolov points out. "By 1600, almost every

thing had been very carefully worked on, and seeds had been produced, and those foods had been established in Europe. In the same sense, the colonists, who were very eager to have familiar foods, planted seeds from Europe in the New World."

The colonists, too, tried new foods because they didn't have much choice.

"Inevitably, in the early days especially, when they couldn't grow everything they were used to, they would branch out and look at what was there," he says. "That happened in this country, too. Every time people would build a log cabin somewhere they would have to see what was in the woods, and what they could shoot, and what they could grow, and what Indians had eaten there before them. There was always a certain amount of improvisation, and that's why we have regional food in this country. Something would catch on and everyone would eat it."

Although Columbus was from Genoa, he sailed under the flag of Spain, and the Spanish conquerors and colonists who arrived in his wake were the earliest Europeans to promote the food exchange. So Mr. Sokolov decided to visit the early colonial outposts of the Spanish empire and, through his own culinary "explorations," discover how the events of five centuries ago affected the way people in those areas are eating today.

"There are a lot of ways of investigating these changes in food," he says. "One of them would be to do research in libraries, and that is what an academic historian would do. I'm a journalist by trade, and my approach was to actually go to the places where the excitement took place in the beginning.

His ports of call included Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cartagena (a fortified Spanish stronghold on the coast of Colombia) and Peru. He even spent time in the Philippines, which was Spain's base for trade with China, the place where East met West.

The author did his exploring in local markets, homes, restaurants and those bastions to truly authentic regional cuisine, bars.

/# "My Spanish is OK, but I'm obvi

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