Books, culture, fishing, and other games

August 08, 2003

The Proper Place of Foods

Somewhere I picked up this odd fetish. I want to know the origins of food. No, itís not a sort of Monk-esque phobia where I canít eat anything I canít place. I just like to know. So when it occurs to me, and I happen to be wandering my local library or Barnes & Noble, along with books on CCS, fly-fishing, science fiction and fantasy, hostas, and poetry, I browse books on food. Along with an appetite, I pick up some esoteric trivia.

Most of it is counterintuitive, so guessing is pretty hopeless, though it can be fun. Never trust a label. Take potatoes, for example. If you remember a bit of history, you will probably think of the potato famines and Irish potatoes. That was when some fungus or virus attacked the potatoes that fed the Irish peasants, so lots of them starved when their crops failed. So, Irish, potatoes, we have a linkÖ potatoes come from Ireland, right?

Nope. First, those plant plagues tend to happen when something is taken from its normal habitat and transferred to an alien environment where itís exposed to diseases for which it hasnít developed immunities or resistances. If anything, historical events involving plant diseases let us know the plants involved probably did not originate where the event occurred.

So that leaves Idaho potatoes! Lots of potatoes grow in Idaho, but they didnít originate there. It seems potatoes originated somewhere in the Andes, probably in what is now Peru. The Spanish conquistadores dragged them back and somewhere along the line spread them on towards Ireland and Idaho, to central Europe for wodka and latkes. (Oddly enough vodka was first made from rye, not potatoes. But with the advent of the potato and its easier fermenting, vodka was forever changed.)

Then thereís the case of that faithful companion to pasta, the tomato. Is it possible Italians ever lived without tomatoes? Was there life before marinara sauce? There must have been. The Romans had no tomatoes and the Romans are generally considered to have lived, even lived well at times.

But it wasnít until an annoyingly obsessed and persistent Genovese (Genoa wasnít exactly a part of Italy then, since Italy didnít exactly exist yet) talked Queen Isabella of Castille into funding a wildly speculative voyage of exploration straight out into the Atlantic that the Italians-to-be got their tomatoes so they could sauce their pasta with marinara. Maybe it was the tomato that unified Italy!

Tomatoes appear to have come back pretty early in the Spanish explorations from the area of Mexico. The current theory is that they too originated in the area of Peru with potatoes, but trading between the Andean and Central American peoples probably moved them north. Even though the Castillians were fabulous bureaucrats and kept records of almost everything, they didnít always make notes of which ship brought back seeds for which sort of plant. Mostly they recorded where the gold and silver came from. Maybe the fact that most seeds donít look much like the plant, or fruit, they produce had something to do with it too.

One of my favorites is the chili pepper. It too came back, possibly with Cristoforo Colůn on his return from his first voyage. Whatís amazing about capsicum, though, is how fast it conquered the world. Those little, red, hot peppers made Atilla the Hun and Genghis Khan look like sluggards. They havenít relinquished a square foot of soil either. They first caught my attention, and scortched my yet innocent lips, miles back off the main river in the Amazon. I didnít know then that those little bird peppers, hotter than fire, were probably natives, but I would have assumed so. They were so far away from civilization that it would have been hard to believe they arrived by trading. Current theory is that capsicum originated in the area of Bolivia, not all that far south of where I first came to feel their burn.

Now, peppers extend around the world and have become irreplaceable in many ďnativeĒ cuisines. Try to imagine Chinese or Southeast Asian cooking without hot peppers. Okay, okay, maybe youíre one of the wimps that never eats anything that bites back, but, trust me, theyíre vital. Paprika, that staple of Hungarian goulash is, yep, nothing but ground up peppers. Where would Cajuns be without their Tobasco? Where would Mexicans be without their molťs?

But another world traveller that did not originate in South America also had penetrated those jungles. The banana is ubiquitous in the Amazon basin, even as it is in Central America, home of the ďbanana republics,Ē and many other tropical areas of the world. Itís a tropical plant, and doesnít much like freezing temperatures, so it hasnít conquered the world to the degree that peppers have. Itís gotten around though.

I always assumed bananas were native Americans. I assumed wrong. Bananas reached Europe before tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. They took the land route from somewhere in southeastern Asia, it seems. Seagoing peoples carried them into the Pacific and down as far as Australia too. They made the trip across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, probably from Africa to Brazil. By the time I was wandering the backcountry of the Amazon they were everywhere and seemed native.

Their companion in the tropics, papaya, on the other hand, did originate in the Americas, probably in Mexico or Central America. Papaya didnít conquer the world even to the degree the banana has though. It has made better inroads in recent years. Papayas are pretty delicate, even more so than the tougher varieties of bananas, so maybe their delicacy had something to do with their slow spread. Not enough people were exposed to the fruit, healthy as it is, to drive the spread of the plants themselves. Or maybe they are even pickier than bananas when it comes to growing conditions.

Posted by dan at August 8, 2003 06:38 PM