When Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) visited Europe in 1878 he complained bitterly about the food, comparing it most unfavorably with American fare. Before returning home, he composed a wish list of comestibles he desired upon his return including Virginia bacon, soft-shell crabs, Philadelphia terrapin soup, canvas-back duck from Baltimore, Connecticut shad, green corn on the ear, butter beans, asparagus, string beans, American butter (he complained that European butter had no salt); predictably apple pie, and curiously, frogs.
WITH APOLOGIES to Samuel Clemens there was no such thing as “American fare” north of Mexico when he wrote, nor had there been for close to two centuries, the remnants of pre-Columbian foodstuffs and cooking techniques notwithstanding. Since the seventeenth century, American cuisine has been a work in progress, kneaded, shaped, and reshaped by African, Asian, and European immigrants. The African contribution was in place by the time of the Civil War, as was that of Northern Europe though somewhat distorted by Native American influences.
But following the war, millions of southern and eastern Europeans, along with a relative handful of Asians, arrived to take their turn at stirring America's culinary melting pot. The new immigrants settled on both coasts in large numbers but some, lured by the promise of free land in the 1862 Homestead Act, spread out into the interior, planting seeds of food globalization as they went.
We must also take into account the wheat pasta eaten in northern China and Japan, countries usually thought of as consumers of rice or pasta derived from rice.
TROPICAL TUCK OF SOUTHEAST ASIA
Asia, sprawling over the eastern portion of the Eurasian land mass as the largest of the world's continents was, not surprisingly, the site of many more Neolithic upheavals than those that took place in the Fertile Crescent. Far to its south and east – in East and Southeast Asia (Indochina) – parts of this vast region can claim a close second in agricultural development. Unfortunately, monsoon Asia, with perhaps the best claim, lies in the tropical belt where artifacts do not preserve well. Consequently there are considerable gaps in the archeological record of foodstuffs and much remains speculative.
Banana and plantain
It has been proposed that in the islands of Melanesia – especially Papua New Guinea – around 9,000 years ago, or even earlier, bananas were cultivated by Australoid peoples whose predecessors reached these Asian outposts by crossing Indonesian land bridges that were later submerged. Geographically there is no problem with this assertion. The wild ancestors of the domesticated banana, Musa acuminata and M. balbisiana, (old usage designated the domesticated banana M. sapientum – “fruit of the wise men” – and the plantain M. paradisiaca – “heavenly fruit”) were located in a region extending from New Guinea to Thailand.
A mountain climate means frost, and hail, and storms, against which desirable domesticated plants should be able to protect themselves … [R]oot crops provide the remedy to those conditions, and among them the potato is preeminent.
IN SOUTH AMERICA, as in Mesoamerica, hunter-gatherers encountered those many difficulties that eventually thrust practically everybody into sedentary agriculture. Around 11,000 years ago people in the Andean region were large-animal hunters, employing fluted points to bring down the giant sloth or the horse – their preferred prey. As these animals became extinct, fluted points disappeared and were replaced by others that indicate a switch to smaller game – deer, camelids, birds, rodents, and the like. Gathered foods such as amaranth and chenopodium seeds (especially quinoa) supplemented the diet, along with beans and white and sweet potatoes.
Archeological evidence in the Andean region from around 9,000 years ago, however, indicates some sidling toward sedentism. There was increase in the number of camelid bones that, in turn, suggests the beginning of camelid herding, which eventually begat the domesticated llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Lama pacos). These wild South American members of the camel family were serious sources of food in the Andean highlands of Peru and Bolivia and may have been domesticated for their flesh as well as for their labor, that flesh freeze-dried to become charqui, which lasts indefinitely. Native Americans who kept llamas and alpacas did not milk them, however, which meant they passed up a good source of protein.
Earth here is so kind, that just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest.
THE FIRST EUROPEANS to settle in North America survived on Native American staples until Old World favorites began to thrive. As Alfred Crosby has shown, practically all Old World plants, animals, and humans did well in regions with climates similar to those of Europe (he termed them “neo-Europes”) by shoving aside more fragile competitors, when there were any competitors at all.
However such “Ecological Imperialism” managed only a faltering start in Florida, and sixteenth-century Spanish soldiers and missionaries had to fill their stomachs mostly with native maize, squash, and beans along with sweet potatoes transplanted from the West Indies. Bitter oranges had been planted by early explorers and by the end of the sixteenth century sweet oranges were growing, although no commercial possibilities were foreseen until the English took Florida in 1763 and, in 1776, began shipping St. Augustine's oranges back to England. Sugarcane was also placed under cultivation but, as a rule, where sugarcane will grow, wheat will not, and wheat flour was always an import to Spanish Florida.
Old World plant vigor, however, was exhibited by peach trees introduced directly from Europe that raced across the American continent well in advance of the Europeans. Native Americans became fond of the fruits, and, by the time of the American Revolution, peaches were so well established that many assumed them to be American natives.
Bread is a very simple manufactured article whose rise in the oven is closely related to the rise of the sun in the sky.
Egypt and North Africa
For thousands of years after the beginnings of Mesopotamian agriculture, an abundance of game animals, lake and river fish, and wild cereals in North Africa did little to discourage a foraging way of life. Hunter-gatherer groups adopted livestock herding, yet continued to gather wild plants – especially the root parts of sedges, rushes, and cattails in riparian environments. But around 5000 bce the Sahara began expanding, an expansion that accelerated sharply around 2000 bce. Desertification ushered people into fertile oases, and especially into the Nile Valley, where periodic migrations from the northwest brought knowledge of the Middle Eastern plant complex. It was in that valley that first barley and later wheat began to flourish, although until farming took firm hold, Nile fish (particularly catfish) and root foods continued to sustain many. By around 4000 bce, however, small states and kingdoms had arisen, supported by “taxes” levied on peasant farmers on food that went directly into the storehouses of the rulers. The small principalities gradually evolved into the two large states of Upper and Lower Egypt that were fused around 3100 bce under the first of the pharaohs. Exploitation quickened of a peasantry that now had nowhere to go. Desertification had trapped them in the Nile Valley, where the Pharaoh owned all of the land.
These same forces – improvements in transportation, preservation, and distribution – liberating Americans from seasonality also continued to free them from the dictates of regional geography.
IT IS WORTH REPEATING that many of the breakthroughs in nutritional science paradoxically occurred during the depression years of food riots, soup kitchens, and breadlines, where the hungry in the cities shoved aside dogs and cats to get at the contents of garbage cans, and rural folks ate wild roots and plants. These were years when morbidity and mortality rates caused by pellagra, scurvy, and rickets were rising alarmingly, and bowleggedness continued to be a common sight.
Needless to say, it was not a time for experimenting with foreign foods, nor were the food-rationed war years that followed. Despite rationing, however, Americans ate better than ever during the war although this did not prevent the “experts” from touching off a brief episode of vitamin hysteria, beginning in 1943 when the Food and Nutrition Board erroneously told Americans – now back to work with plenty of money to spend – that their diets were dangerously deficient in many of the chief nutrients. Such foolishness only underscores the fact that the functions and chemistry of vitamins and minerals were still poorly understood. So did proposals for widespread vitamin supplementation, with bread, cereals, milk, and oleomargarine all fortified during the war.
When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.
HUNTER-GATHERERS, who had previously made a living based on their solid knowledge of plant life and an understanding of animal behavior, continued to follow many of their old ways even as they engaged in agricultural activities. Consequently, the Neolithic Revolution, as we have come to call the invention of agriculture, although the most momentous of humankind's achievements, was not revolutionary in that it brought abrupt change. Rather, beginning about 11,000 years ago, grain gathering began to shade into grain cultivation in the Jericho Valley and, at about that time or a little later, hunting started giving way to herding in the Zagros Mountains. Millennia later surpluses were generated, giving rise to agricultural civilizations such as of Mesopotamia, Egypt, northern China, and the Indus Valley, and with them came more complex and stratified societies.
It is probably not coincidental that all of these first civilizations emerged within a relatively few centuries of one another, despite the distances separating them. Each one was located on a river and dependent on annual flooding for moist, rich soils rather than on the vagaries of rainfall. Agriculture was simplified because there was little need for plowing or manuring and, as a result, despite occasional famines, populations grew larger.
The perpetual struggle for room and food.
MAIZE WAS ONE of the major crops collected as tribute by the Aztecs. Amaranth was another (Amaranthus hypochondriacus and A. cruentus – a third species [A. caudatus] was cultivated in the Andes of South America). Amaranth was a green treasure that provided edible seeds as well as leaves– both with good quality protein. Domesticated amaranth was apparently of considerable antiquity in Mexico and a part of the diet some 5,500 years ago. The versatile seeds were generally boiled and eaten as a porridge but could also be made into a beverage, a candy, or could even be popped, and the hundreds of thousands of bushels of amaranth seed that reached Aztec granaries each year indicate its widespread cultivation. In addition, the Aztecs also grew their own amaranth on roughly 75 square miles of chinampas or floating gardens on Lake Texcoco. From Mexico, amaranth cultivation spread northward to the pueblos of the southeastern United States. It was domesticated independently in South America.
So why did this valuable plant fall into such disuse that today it is mostly a curiosity available only in health food stores? The answer generally put forward is the objection of the Spanish to Aztec religious ceremonies that employed images made of amaranth dough in what seemed to be a heretical parody of the Holy Communion. Yet, that may not be the whole story because a second tribute-crop of the Aztecs has also become obscure.
And the trees are as different from ours as day from night; and also the fruits, and grasses and stones and everything.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries marked the maximum extension of that episode of glacial expansion we call the Little Ice Age, when growing seasons were shortened by several weeks and altitudes at which crops could grow were reduced. At the same time Europeans, having recovered from the devastation of the Black Plague, were once more increasing in numbers and in need of extra calories. It was at this point that the American foods, whose earlier adoptions had been scattered and spasmodic, began to achieve widespread acceptance.
A good question is why it took Europeans so long to embrace the American crops. They promised more calories and some, like maize and potatoes, had significant advantages over Old World counterparts. Illustrative are potatoes. In that swath from the North Sea to the Ural Mountains, rye, although temperamental in the face of cold winters and rainy summers, was the only Old World grain that did at all well. But potatoes thrived in such a climate – very like their native environment – and could produce some four times more calories per acre than rye. Moreover, potato crops matured in three or four months, whereas rye and other grains required ten months. Potatoes could be planted on fields fallowed for future rye cultivation, and left in the ground to be dug up when needed.
The world of food requires unobtrusive erudition. It is well known that curiosity is the basic thrust toward knowledge, which in turn is the necessary precondition for pleasure.
AS WE JUST SAW, American anguish about weight and well-being has prompted scientific probes into obscure food-related alleyways. It also did much to advance food globalization in America. During the 1950s, Americans with a hankering for the foreign had pizza parlors for eating out and canned chow mein and chop suey for eating in, but most were still meat and potatoes people. It was a time when nobody used garlic and only winos drank wine. But this stolid unimaginative image was chipped away at beginning with the refined tastes of highly visible Jacqueline Kennedy and her fondness for French, Italian, and even British foods. Moreover, Americans took a good look at their waistlines, had their hearts checked, worried about their fat consumption, and began in earnest to adopt foreign foods increasingly thought to be healthy.
A stick prodding the public in this direction was the controversial 1977 document entitled Dietary Goals for the United States, published by the Senate Select Committee headed by George McGovern. Its 1978 bombshell edition alleged that the nation was under siege from an epidemic of “killer diseases” – heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes, and obesity brought on by changes in the American diet during the preceding half-century. The document called for a more “natural” diet, as well as more nutritional research to counter the epidemic.
Religious contention is the devil's harvest.
The expansion of Islam began shortly after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632. By 750 the Muslims had conquered an area running from the Indus Valley westward through the Middle East to the Iberian Peninsula, and elites were speaking Arabic from Spain to Central Asia.
The Arabs, like the Romans before them, learned to use the wind systems of the monsoon (the winds reverse themselves seasonally) to sail from the Persian Gulf eastward into the Indian Ocean in November, and then return to port during the summer months. Regular eighth-century trading voyages to China saw wool and iron exchanged for silks and spices. About two centuries later, when trade with China was disrupted by the fall of the Tang Empire (907), the Arabs skipped the middleman and headed directly to the East Indies, capturing the spice trade and spreading Islam as they went.
Christian Europe, an implacable enemy of Islam, nonetheless admired Islamic cuisine and benefited from Islam's commercial activity. That activity ensured that spices reached the Continent on a circuitous path from the East Indies, as well as new foodstuffs such as sugarcane (genus Saccharum), mangos (Mangifera indica), dates, and bananas. Moreover, toward the end of the twelfth century, the wooly merino sheep was introduced to Spain – an animal originally developed by the Romans and later exported to Africa.
Why, then, the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
In the south of Southeast Asia, Alocasia or dryland taro, perhaps originating in India or Burma, has been under cultivation for at least 7,000 years. Wetland (Colocasia) taro, yams, and (probably) dry and wet land rice came along later. Yet, as mentioned earlier, a mystery is why the Austronesian farmer-pioneers, who sailed off to settle the Philippines and the East Indies at about this time (6000 bce), were accompanied by taro, yams, pigs, and dogs, but not rice. The most logical answer is that rice had not yet become a staple in Southeast Asia. But it is not a particularly satisfactory answer because, despite many ensuing waves of Pacific pioneers, when the Europeans first entered the world's largest body of water, rice was absent from the whole of the Pacific, save for the Mariana Islands. Did rice somehow get lost from the horticultural complex? Or were taro and yams just easier to cultivate?
The pioneers originated in Southeast Asia and neighboring New Guinea, and their initial waves fanned out into the Philippines and the East Indies. These were an Austronesian-speaking people whose descendents, with their distinctive Lapita pottery, became the ancestors of the Polynesians. Around 3,500 years ago they launched epic voyages of exploration and colonization, moving swiftly in their double-hulled canoes to establish settlements in Fiji, and then in Samoa and Tonga – the latter two islands becoming jump-off points for the eventual settlement of the rest of Polynesia, ending with Hawaii around 1,500 years ago and New Zealand some 1,000 to 2,000 years ago.
Dazzling-white sugar, ground down from huge Dutch sugar loaves … sweeter and more yielding than Venetian sugar loaves, the white gold of confectioners and pastry-cooks.
Sugar – a preservative, a fermenting agent, a sweetener of food and drink without changing the flavor – has revolutionized the food processing industry; and sugar cane was the most revolutionary of all plants to reach the Americas. Today sugar – actually the chemical sucrose, extracted from the cane – is the world's best-selling food, surpassing even wheat.
This giant grass with stems juicy with a sappy pulp is generally believed to be a native of New Guinea, although India and China are often put forward as alternative cradles because it was cultivated in both places in ancient times. Much later (around 500 bce) the Persians came across sugarcane growing in the Indus Valley and, although humans had doubtless coaxed sweet juice out of bits of cane by chewing on them for eons, the Indus Valley growers may have been the first to use the cane in a more sophisticated fashion by pressing it for its juice, then concentrating that juice by boiling it.
In any event, the Persians quickly adopted cane cultivation and, by the seventh century ad, had refined the process sufficiently to produce a nearly white loaf. Some of these sugar loaves entered Europe through Venice as one more spice called “white salt.”
It is no surprise for historians of science that in any scientific field ideas which in one generation seemed to be firmly based truths should be overturned in the next.
ALLAYING PUBLIC HEALTH concerns about food quality was a necessary step in America's march toward food globalization. How could one be adventuresome about new and strange foods when even familiar ones were suspect? Moreover, perceptions had to change. For example, throughout most of baking history, white bread has been preferred by the elites; the whiteness signifying purity and refinement. By contrast, brown and black breads suggested coarseness, so that in racially-mixed Spanish America, skin color was closely associated with the color of the bread consumed.
Sylvester Graham had railed against white bread in the nineteenth century but not for the right reasons. He thought white bread was too nutritious to be digested properly. Regardless, Graham's railing did little to slow white bread production or to improve its yield of nutrients. Quite the contrary. The steel roller mills that came into use in the 1870s made it possible to turn out bread flour lacking both bran and wheat-germ as well as important vitamins and minerals. Interestingly, it was only after white bread became universally available that the upper classes, at least, discovered the virtues of coarse bread that was high in fiber, and the counterculture of the 1960s found practically anything brown (brown bread, brown rice, brown skin) preferable to white (white bread, white skin, White House).
… Christopher Columbus began a process that in the words from a passage in one of the books of Esdras … “Shook the earth, moved the round world, made the depths shudder and turned creation upside down.”
IN THE AMERICAS, Spain and Portugal laid claim to a vast storehouse of strange new plant foods. In the West Indies – the gateway to Spain's Americas – a sampling of the groceries that greeted Columbus and his men included zamia (Zamia integrifolia), manioc (Manihot esculenta), and maize (Zea mays) – these used for breads and gruels. Then there were myriad other mysterious vegetables like sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), yautía (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), beans (genus Phaseolus), and peanuts (Arachis hypogaea). New seasonings were encountered, such as allspice (Pimenta dioica) and chilli peppers (genus Capsicum), along with indigenous West Indies fruits such as guava (Psidium guajava), soursop (Annona muricata), mamey (Mammea americana), custard apple (Annona reticulata), sapodilla (Achras zapota), pawpaw (Carica papaya), and pineapple (Ananas comosus). And these were just a few of the American foods that Europeans had never before laid eyes on nor set tooth to.
Fish and mollusks had provided much of the animal protein for those South American Tainos who had settled in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas, but sea turtles and their eggs, land crabs (Cardisoma sp.), insects, and small game such as the iguana (family Iguanidae) – which became extinct in the West Indies after the Europeans arrived – also made contributions.
And I can assure your Majesty that if plants and seeds from Spain were to be had here … the natives of these parts show such industry in tilling land and planting trees that in a very short time there would be great abundance. …
THE SCOPE of the known world doubled for the Europeans over the course of the sixteenth century, but it was only in the New World that the planet's cuisines as well as foods and peoples were first amalgamated on a vast scale. Had the European conquest occurred without a massive Native American die-off, its history might have been more like that of China or India, where it was only a matter of time before huge native majorities tossed out ruling foreign minorities to reclaim their lands and cultures. But in Mexico, Peru, and in most of the rest of the Americas, shrinking native populations left the door wide open to a flood of European and African and Asian peoples and cultures that came to stay. The ensuing blending of New and Old World foods was a giant stride in food globalization, even though it was sometimes hobbled by Latin American tariff rates that were among the highest in the world between 1820 and 1929.
During the Hapsburgs stay on Spain's throne (1516–1700), elites in the Americas, like those in Europe, ate the cosmopolitan foods of the Hapsburg Empire – “roasted kids and hams, quail pies, stuffed fowl and pigeons, blancmange and escabeche of chicken, partridge, and quail” were some of these foods that Cortéz and the new Viceroy of New Spain served at a feast in 1538.
Mother Nature always comes to the rescue of a society stricken with the problem of overpopulation, and her ministrations are never gentle.
ARCHEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE now in the British Museum from West Stow in Suffolk, England, has shed some light on the dietary changes that came about with the fall of Rome. Sheep, goats, and pigs were retained for food, and pigs also for their scavenging ability, and cattle as draft animals. But guinea fowl and peacocks, favorites of the Romans, escaped to die out in the wild. Many rabbits also escaped but were recaptured and maintained in rock enclosures in both Britain and on the Continent. Olive oil vanished as a cooking medium, replaced by butter made mostly from ewe's milk. Wine, too, disappeared with the Romans and ale became the standard beverage.
The Catholic Church, established in England by the sixth century, imposed fasting days and, by the time of the Norman conquest (1066), fishermen from the British Isles had forged an important herring industry. Freshwater fish, eels and other aquatic animals from ponds, streams, and lakes comprised a significant part of the British diet although, because the Church viewed fish as a penitential substitute for meat, the appeal of the former suffered, and physicians, as a rule, regarded fish as a poor nutritional substitute for meat.
One taste worldwide.
FAST FOOD MAKES NEWS. In the United States, the Center for Science in the Public Interest periodically exposes the fat and calorie content of fast foods. In 1994 it pointed out, to the consternation of many who thought popcorn was benign, that a large order of this long-time fast food (it became popular during World War II when candy was in short supply), popped movie-style in coconut oil, stuffed its consumer with two days worth of artery-clogging fat – and this before butter was added. With butter, the harmful fat was equal to that packed into nine McDonald's quarter-pounders.
And speaking of McDonald's, a bemused nation recently read that obese adults and youngsters alike were suing the fast food giant for making them fat, and the fast food industry was clamoring for legislation (the so-called “cheeseburger bills”) to obviate more obesity suits. But despite considerable anti–fast-food fuming fueled by growing waistlines, fast food establishments were routinely muscling their way into military bases, school cafeterias, university student unions, even into major-league hospitals in a wave of nutritional nihilism that seemed unstoppable.
Abroad, however, where food phobias can take the form of outright terrorism, there were attempts to stop fast food cold. In 1995, Danish anarchists looted, wrecked, and then (adding insult to injury) burned a McDonald's restaurant in Copenhagen – beginning a wave of “McBurnings” and “McBombings” that stretched in Europe from Belgium and England to Greece, France, and Russia, and in South America from Cali to Rio de Janeiro.
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