No doubt, as pedants are quick to quip, Columbus did not “discover” the long-inhabited Americas. But he did discover—if accidentally—a sea route between the Old World and the New. And that discovery set in motion a continuous exchange of native plants, animals and diseases with profound consequences. Indeed, much of the modern world’s economic, social, and political history spins off from that encounter. Food makes an ideal way to understand and teach this complex and compelling history.
The scholarly literature on the biological—and by extension, culinary—ramifications of the Columbian Encounter is now rather large. The classic starting point is Alfred W. Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange (Greenwood Press, 1972— but now in multiple editions; the 30th anniversary Prager iteration has an excellent new forward by the global historian J.R. McNeil of Georgetown University). Crosby enriched our understanding of the modern world by uncovering the hidden history of plants, animals, and microbes that wrought revolutionary change in the wake of the Columbian encounter. More recently, Crosby’s basic framework—and his focus on the ecological—have been updated and expanded in two popular and very readable books: Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Vintage, 2011) and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1999).
Partly as a result, today nearly every textbook of the period features a map studded with arrows indicating the exchange of particular plants and diseases. But as welcome as these discussions are, they can often mislead in at least four ways. First, the Columbian Encounter often gets told as primarily a story of conquest: European peoples, plants, and pathogens taking over native lands. In reality, the exchange was decidedly a two-way affair with profound implications on both sides of the Atlantic.
Second, textbook descriptions often portray a somewhat narrow interaction between, on the one hand, the homelands of the European conquerors and settlers and, on the other hand, the lands in the New World they increasingly dominated. So, for example, exchanges between what are now the countries of Spain and Mexico often receive extensive attention. But it is more revealing—and locates Latin America in the appropriate global context—to think of the Columbian Exchange as an interaction between an Old World that includes Africa and the Middle East as well as Europe, and a New World of the Americas. Thinking of the exchange in this fashion highlights the connections between the Islamic World and both Western Europe and Latin America as well as the consequential interactions between the New World and Africa.
Third, when talking about foods that emerged as a consequence of the Columbian exchange, discussion sometimes ends with a celebration of new dishes (“And that’s why there’s tomatoes on pizza!”) and stops short of addressing the often monumental consequences of such shifts in diet. Such truncated examinations are a missed teaching opportunity. Using food a starting point makes it possible for students to move from the familiar and concrete (say, potatoes in European diets) to the unfamiliar and abstract (the surprising rise of the West over much of the world between 1750 and 1950).
Fourth, discussions of the Columbian encounter’s consequences on food often create the illusion of a new—but ultimately static—moment of culinary “authenticity” born of 1492, but beyond further influence or change. This tendency again plucks Latin America and Latinos out of a global context. But Latin American cuisine—even those dishes often thought of as traditional culinary centerpieces—never stopped reflecting global forces and influences on the region. The trick is to be able to identify the global in the local.
A very quick introduction to the consequences of the Columbian encounter not simply on the New World but also on the Old World as well as Africa and Asia can be found in Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, “The Columbian Exchange:
A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” Journal of Economic Perspectives (Spring 2010). Nunn and Qian’s historical lens embraces the entirety of the Old World—including Africa and the Islamic World—and so can provide the scholarly background for a delightful gem of culinary history, “The Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connection” by Rachel Laudan and Ignacio Urquiza (Aramco World, 2012). The article opens up with a mystery: how is it that the national dish of Mexico, mole, is so similar to the spicy, aromatic curries of India? Is it mere coincidence or does it reveal deeper but forgotten global connections? Students are fascinated by such questions and so are often motivated to grasp what can otherwise seem both abstract and ancient. As Laudan and Urquiza note, the Recetario de Dominga de Guzmán (Recipe Book of Dominga de Guzmán), compiled around 1750, provides a glimpse of Andalusian cooking—with deep roots in the Arabo-Islamic world—adapting to the very different circumstances of New Spain. Recetario de Dominga de Guzmán is available in paperback (Consejo Nactional Para La Cultura y Las Artes, 2010) and the shifting recipes for gazpacho, in particular, can make for an intriguing “document-based question” for students. But as Nunn and Qian note, the Columbian encounter reverberated in Africa as well in Europe and the Americas. Connections between Africa, Europe, and the New World brought about by the Columbian Encounter—particularly those related to food stuffs grown in Latin America—get discussed in the thought-provoking In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (University of California Press, 2011). Likewise, instructors wishing to connect the Columbian encounter to European expansion in both Asia and Africa should look to Fiammetta Rocco’s The Miraculous Fever-Tree: Malaria, Medicine and the Cure That Changed the World (Harper, 2003).
Of course, primary rather than secondary sources are the stuff of the history classroom. Such sources, however, are more rare from before 1492 than after. Many pre-Columbian texts were burned in the 15th and 16th centuries, the target of both Spanish clerics intent on stamping out paganism and native rulers eager to revise their own histories. But those works that survived compellingly represent both the pre-Columbian world and the wrenching changes of the early colonial period. Colloquially referred to as “codices,” from the Latin caudex (“trunk of a tree”), these manuscripts were assembled from sheets made of tree bark, cactus fiber, animal skins, or European paper, and feature hand-written content. Many are actually post-Columbian copies of earlier material and frequently contain a mix of pictography, ideograms, and phonetic symbols and Latin script in either Náhuatl or Spanish.
Foods and their preparations feature in many of these codices. In particular, the preparation of chocolate can be explored through the Codice Tudela and the Florentine Codex as well as in the colonial-era sources of Friar Diego de Landa’s Yucatan Before and After the Conquest and Francisco Hernández de Toledo’s The Natural History of New Spain. One such student activity appropriate for college students and employing all of these materials as primary sources (with the relevant translations) can be found here as part of a larger course using food to teach Latin American history
Understanding the Columbian encounter requires, of course, making sense of the Spanish conquest itself. How and why that event (or, more accurately, process) now looks decidedly different than it did two decades ago merits a brief discussion. For historians of the period, the Spanish conquest appears, in contrast to popular conceptions, to have been neither particularly Spanish nor much of a conquest. The unexpected aspects of the new picture are perhaps best captured by Mathew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford, 2003). Restall joined forces with the eminent global historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto to condense this new, more complete history of the conquest—as part of Oxford University Press’s “Short Introduction” series—in The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012). Many of the same ideas are also discussed in a more student-friendly television series by PBS, When Worlds Collide (2010, 90 Minutes).
Five individual foods make for particularly enlightening entry points to teaching Latin American history: chocolate, chuños (freeze-dried potatoes), bananas, tacos, and rum. Cacao beans—the basis for chocolate, as well as a number of Mesoamerican foods—make for an excellent way to introduce students to both the extent of trade in the pre-Columbian world and the powerfully expansionistic nature of Aztec Empire. Cacaco beans played a key role in the tribute system the Empire imposed on the peoples it conquered—along with slaves, animal skins, and a surprising array of other goods. The history of cacao in Meso-America receives lavish attention in two noteworthy books: Meredith Dreiss and Sharon Greenhill, Chocolate: Pathways to the Gods (University of Arizona Press, 2008) and Maricel Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes (10 Speed Press, 2009).
The ecological imperialism that fueled the Inkan Empire—whose rulers successfully exploited the Andes’ astounding diversity of environments and therefore range of products and resources—is particularly visible in the chuño. These freeze-dried potatoes require the Altiplano’s intense sunlight of the day followed by freezing e temperatures at night. The culinary history of the Chuño is brought up to the present-day and located in an insightful ethnography of tourism and globalization in Clare A. Sammells, “Ode to a Chuño: Learning to Love Freeze-Dried Potatoes in Highland Bolivia” in Adventures In Eating: Anthropological Tales of Dining Around the World. (University Press of Colorado, 2010).
The neo-colonial nature of Latin America’s economies in the twentieth century as well as the cold war’s impact on the region’s politics are insightfully revealed in Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (Plume, 2008). Continuing the focus on bananas, a variety of primary sources and accompanying student activities that explore the role of the CIA and United Fruit Company’s lucrative banana trade in the notorious 1954 Guatemalan coup have been helpfully compiled by the University of Maryland here: http://www.umbc.edu/che/historylabs/lessondisplay.php?lesson=101
Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (Oxford University Press, 2012 ) takes on the contentious issue of what is “authentic” Mexican foods. Pilcher, using the taco as a focal point, makes clear that Mexican food has been global from the beginning. The effort in Mexico to use food to create and mark social boundaries has not always been benign, however. During the seldom-discussed violent expulsion of Chinese immigrants from the Mexican state of Sonora in 1931, food played a significant role in Mexicans’ racist caricatures of the Chinese. Materials related to the episode have been helpfully compiled on-line by California State University San Marcos here. (http://www.csusmhistory.org/caro007/introduction/)
The final food that helps locate Latin America in a global perspective is rum. A splendid overview of this complex history can be found in Frederick H. Smith’s Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History (University of Florida Press, 2009). Because rum production brought together a plant of South Asian origin, enslaved labor from Africa, and European capital and management, the history of this familiar spirit usefully distills for students the global forces at work in Latin America.