Columbus’ “Discovery” of America – a Whole New World of Eating

We celebrate the Columbus Day holiday this week, and, as usual, we observe the day with mixed feelings.

Love him or hate him, Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World began a chain of events that changed nearly everything about the modern world. As for us, we look at it more simply:  we like to celebrate Columbus for how he changed our eating for the better.

Columbus was looking for an alternate route to India and the Far East, where much sought-after spices were grown. He was searching for a way to bypass the monopoly Venice had on the spice trade.

In “discovering” the Americas, Columbus mistakenly thought he had found a shortcut to the East.  Instead, he discovered [in the words of Aladdin and the Princess Jasmine 🙂 ] a whole new world of exotic foods and spices.

Here are just a few of the New World spice discoveries that are now integral to cuisines around the world:

  • Allspice [a special favorite of ours] is the berry of the Jamaican bayberry tree, used in such far-ranging purposes as Jamaican jerk seasoning, in moles and pickling, in American desserts, Middle Eastern stews, Polish soups [“kubaba”], and in the West Indian liqueur “pimento dram.”
  • Vanilla, which is derived from the native Mexican vanilla orchid, is the second most expensive spice [after saffron], but is now grown throughout tropical regions from coastal Madagascar to the far South Pacific, and used in fine dessert-making throughout the entire world.
  • The mainstay of Hungarian cuisine, Paprika, is one of the peppers said to be brought back from the New World by Columbus. Paprika features prominently in recipes throughout Europe, particularly in Hungary, Spain, and in Turkish cuisine. It is also the ingredient used to make “natural colors” of red, orange and brown in processed foods – and the zoo-food additive that preserves flamingos’ bright plumage.
  • Chilies – chile peppers originated in the Americas, and were brought back to Europe by Columbus. The ensuing Age of Exploration spread chiles throughout the regions colonized by Spain, Portugal, and Holland. Today, chiles are a key ingredient in spicy cuisines around the world – from Mexico and the Caribbean to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and everywhere in Asia.
  • The cacao tree – whose seeds are used to make cacao nibs, cocoa powder and chocolate. (This probably deserves a whole Spicy Bytes newsletter issue of its own.) Suffice it to say that the cacao tree is a pretty big deal around the world — okay, it’s a pretty big deal to ME. Right now? I’m eating some delicious fair-trade chocolate. We’re mighty glad that this New World discovery made its way into so many dessert and beverage recipes.

And we’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg, having omitted arrowroot, epazote, maple sugar, Piment de Esplette, and Annatto.

And what of the fruit and vegetable food finds from the New World? Corn, avocados, squash, sweet potatoes, onions, cranberries, potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, and blueberries, for starters.

Can you imagine Irish cooking without potatoes, or Thai food without a spicy chile pepper? Or [shudder] Italian pizza or spaghetti without an onion or tomato? It is a world that is, to quote the Princess Bride (also celebrating this month, its 25th anniversary), INCONCEIVABLE.

[For an excellent, if scholarly, look at how Columbus’ “discovery” changed the world, I highly recommend Charles C. Mann’s excellent book, 1493.]


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