Columbus and the New World explorers forever changed food history when they landed in the New World. They were first in an inundation of European (Old World) visitors to the Americas that brought new plants, new recipes, and a new cuisine
Food Exchange The new arrivals were human, animal, plant, and pathogenic. At the same time that people and foods were streaming west, several New World plants were heading east to dramatically alter the cuisine of Europe. During these exchanges Native America also gave Europe several foods that would become icons in European cuisine. The tomato for instance, a new world staple common in Pre-Columbian South America and Mexico, would eventually become the base for Southern Italian sauces, the spaghetti and pizza sauce called Marinara which also incorporates the new world bell pepper and the New World chili.
The potato, the staple of the Incas of Peru, would become the storable root crop (tuber) crucial to the Irish of northern Europe.
During this interchange it wasn’t just plants that crossed oceans; Old World diseases wiped out 90 percent of America’s native population according to some estimates. The new worlders might have had their revenge, however; recent research indicates that Syphilis had sailed back to the old world with the crew of Columbus.
The food exchange dramatically altered New World cuisine: onions and garlic, staples of the old World, have become integral to Mexican and South American cuisine. That trip by Columbus was, after all, an attempt to find a sea route to the spice islands of India and to Indonesia’s Molluccas. He might have missed the mark but he did have a lasting impact on world cuisine.
New World Staples That Went East to Europe:
- Zucchini /Squash
- Bell Pepper
New World Spices:
Allspice, Vanilla, Chocolate, Chili
Old World staples that went west (just a few)
New World foods didn’t wow Europe at first. In fact the tomato was thought by Britains to be toxic (the green leaves of the nightshade plant are toxic) and was slow to popularity, although by the late 1600s it did make it into European cookbooks. It joined the Zucchini, another New World plant that is now identified with Italian cooking.
The potato, also of the nightshade family like the tomato, is toxic when green and uncooked but its winter keeping quality made it popular in Europe and a staple in impoverished Ireland. When blight struck in 1845, potato was the mainstay of the Irish diet; the crop perished, famine ensued.
Maize (corn) was unknown in Europe before Columbus. (Europeans called all grain corn) This New world staple was first hybridized in south Central Mexico, either purposely or serendipitously, perhaps as early as five thousand years ago. It became an important world crop shortly after reaching Europe.
The New Worlds greatest gift to world cooking might one day be the avocado. A New World health food that has no insect predators; the avocado does not need to be dosed with insecticide.
Like olive oil, avocado oil is extracted from the fruit and not the seed. Avocado is so rich in healthy oils that it might someday rival first cold press olive oil as a heart-healthy oil.
Cuisine of Royalty
Cuisine is shaped by royalty who seek exotic spices to enliven a dish. The wise use of spices would demonstrate the kings sagacity and power in importing exotic foods. Important are the thyme, oregano, garlic, rosemary, cumin (all old world) and the more exotic mace, ginger, clove, turmeric, cinnamon, and nutmeg. (India, Asia, Indonesia) The emperor’s table, the king’s kitchen, and the Pope’s banquet table are places where the development of our cuisine reached its zenith. New World spices like vanilla, chili, and chocolate joined the Old World spices in the world’s cookbooks soon after the voyage of Columbus.
The new world had as powerful a ruling elite as did the kingdoms of Europe in 1519 when the Spanish conquered Mexico. Unfortunately the Spanish destroyed historical Native Mexican records. All we have are Conquistador accounts of sumptuous feasts at the table of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma. One legend tells of Aztec runners bringing fresh caught red snapper to the table of Moctezuma after a relay run of a hundred miles through the mountains from the Pacific coast to Tenochtitlan, the city of the Aztecs.
Meanwhile in Europe thePopes were feasting in multi-coarse splendor and the Medici were seasoning with exotic spices from the east shipped through Venice. The Spanish established seaports on their pacific coast at Acapulco and were soon sailing the Pacific to the spice islands of the Moluccas, the destination that the explorer had all along intended.
Columbus did make his mark on world cuisine after all; that five week voyage by Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria to the Bahamas in the Fall of 1492 has forever changed the way the world prepares its food.