American cuisine is a combination of foods originated around the world

THE AMERICAN SMORGASBORD

July 05, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

It wasn't just the coming over, but also the going back.

Four times Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, and four times he returned. He never quite got to where he wanted, and he never quite understood what he had found. And though he lamented in his diary that he couldn't identify the value of a single plant or tree, he proved a better botanist than a navigator, for he changed cuisine forever.

Not just the way the New World (which was really another old world) eats, or the way the Old World eats, but the way the whole world eats.

Columbus was seeking, among other things, black pepper, ginger and gold; he found hot and sweet chiles, maize and cassava, manioc and sweet potatoes.

The indigenous people wanted nothing; he gave them cows, pigs, horses, sheep and goats -- and beads and smallpox.

The back-and-forth transit of foodstuffs was part of Spanish policy, writes Raymond Sokolov, writer, editor, critic and "food journalist," in "Why We Eat What We Eat" (Summit Books, 1991, $22): "Old World crops and livestock were introduced to Mexico and Peru to support a civilized (that is, Spanish) way of life for the colonists, and New World exotica were sent to Spain as novelties and for agricultural exploitation. But once tomatoes had taken root in Italy, once cattle provided beef and gave milk in Mexico, then local cooks put these wonderful new foods to new uses. And the world changed."

Post-Columbian barbecue

If you celebrated that quintessential American holiday, the Fourth of July, yesterday with a grilled cheeseburger in the back yard -- lettuce, tomato, ketchup, cheese, french fries on the side -- you were indulging in what Mr. Sokolov calls "post-Columbian cuisine." The beef and cheese came from the Old World, the tomato and potato from the New.

Wheat for the bun came from the Old and flourished in the New. Potatoes made a roundabout trip from South America in the holds of ships to Portugal and Spain, then moved north to France and Belgium. "French fries" were street food in Paris in the mid-1800s.

"Most of the combinations we eat now are fairly new," says Carolyn Margolis, project coordinator for Quincentenary Programs at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, where the current "Seeds of Change" exhibit explores the impact of the meeting of the two worlds. Other examples: spaghetti and tomato sauce; beef and fish stews with potatoes.

"When we think of 'American' food," Ms. Margolis noted, "we often think of Tex-Mex -- which has many dishes that are beef-based and have cheese in them." Without cows, pre-Columbian Americans ate very differently.

And then there's that other all-American favorite: "The Italians atepizza for years and years without tomato, and then they discovered it." She laughs. "Or maybe we discovered it and gave it back to them."

Adaptation of ingredients

In fact, many of these blended foods were created by adaptation of new ingredients into Old World dishes and then re-adaptation as immigrants from the Old World came to the new.

American tables, as a result, became "not a melting pot, but rather a vast kaleidoscopic smorgasbord that even the visionary Columbus could not have foreseen," writes Elizabeth Rozin, in her cookbook "Blue Corn and Chocolate" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, $23). "A day in October some 500 years ago set in motion the culinary events that led to everything we hold to be uniquely and profoundly American, from french fries and ketchup to cornflakes and Baby Ruth bars, from chili and gumbo to pizza and turkey sandwiches."

"We're very ethnocentric in America," says Lorna Sass, New York-based food historian and writer. "When we look down at our dinner plate, we tend to think, 'Oh, this is American food.' But what we've done historically is, with each immigrant group, we take for our own the foodstuffs they bring." Ms. Sass thinks Americans are more receptive to new foods, possibly because of the great waves of immigration over time.

And it all started with Columbus. Ray Sokolov cites "the swift adaptation" to the New World of the pig, which Columbus introduced on his second voyage in 1493. "One is tempted to say that the New World was conquered by swine as much as by the Spanish," Mr. Sokolov writes. "There were literally thousands of pigs on this side of the Atlantic by 1550."

A process of amalgamation

"It's a logical process to take foods [that are] available and transform them through the technology that is known to us," Ms. Sass says. "Take, for example, a dish like Indian pudding. The colonists came over, they knew how to make custard -- but what do you do with cornmeal that has no gluten in it? You try to make bread with it, and you fail, because you can't get it to rise. So you say, 'OK, let me see what would happen if I stir in some eggs and milk, and create a kind of bread-pudding-y custard . . . '

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