It was the autumn of 2007. The September issue of Gourmet had been devoted to Latin American food and culture in the United States, and reaction from our readers was swift. Most of them loved it—“Thank you for so eloquently highlighting the cultural nuances that go into Latino cooking,” one wrote. But others were insulted beyond belief that the issue had, for instance, “crossed over from a good-living mouthpiece to a left-wing sensitivity lecture.” Good grief.
The comment that really stuck with me, though, was from someone who felt that since we were an American magazine, along with the wealth of recipes we provided from Cuba, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico, we should have included some actual American food—you know, like corn on the cob and potato salad.
What triggered this reminiscence is the imminent arrival of the holiday traditionally called Columbus Day, or—given the explorer’s endlessly controversial legacy—what is increasingly celebrated as Indigenous Peoples’ Day (apostrophe optional) and more.
Corn and potatoes, of course, are as American as it gets: Corn (maize) and potatoes were first cultivated thousands of years ago by the early inhabitants of Mesoamerica and the Andes, respectively. They are just two of the many foods brought from the New World to the Old World (not just Europe, but the entire eastern hemisphere) in what is termed the Columbian Exchange—the transfer of crops, animals, diseases, ideas, populations, and even allergies following Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas in 1492. The Columbian Exchange is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chiles in Thailand and India, and sweet potatoes (which are probably native to Central America) in China. Often described as the most important event in human history since the end of the Ice Age, this momentous biological and ecological occurrence is the underpinning of the world as we see it today.
Like all grand epic stories, it was, of course, fraught with tragedy on an unimaginable scale. Some experts estimate that up to 95 percent of the early inhabitants of the Americas may have died upon contact with smallpox and other European diseases. “This depopulation along with the production of valuable Old World crops like sugar cane and coffee then fueled the demand for labor that gave rise to the transatlantic slave trade,” wrote Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. “Following the slave trade, the African continent was divided and brought under European colonial rule, an event that some have argued would have been impossible without the discovery of quinine in the New World. Moreover, the knowledge of how to harvest and process rubber, learned from natives of the Andes, had particularly regrettable consequences for those in Africa’s Congo region.”
In the scientific, compulsively readable 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann adds Mesoamerica to what are considered to be the four wellsprings of human civilization: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, in modern Iraq; the Nile Delta, in Egypt; the Indus Valley, in Pakistan; and the valley of the Yellow River (Huang He), in east-central China. “Mesoamerica would deserve its place in the human pantheon if its inhabitants had only created maize, in terms of harvest weight, the world’s most important crop,“ he wrote. Hold that thought.
Most of us tend to cloak what we know—or think we know—about the pre-Columbian Americas with a gauzy romanticism. With the exception of the great Olmec, Maya, Aztec, and Incan civilizations, the inhabitants—Mann refers to them as Indians because that is what most of the indigenous peoples of both North and South America prefer to call themselves—did not have much of an impact on the superabundant, pristine wilderness, right?
Wrong. Like humans everywhere, the American Indians intensively shaped, manipulated, and controlled the natural world. “Indians worked on a large scale, transforming huge swathes of the landscape for their own ends. Sifting through the evidence, it is apparent that many though not all Indians were superbly active land managers—they did not live lightly on the land,” Mann wrote.
Instead of domesticating animals for meat, for example, Indians in the middle of North America used fire to turn grasslands into a giant game farm. In the Andean highlands, where potatoes were domesticated about 8,000 years ago, farmers let freezing temperatures break down the cell walls in their spuds, then stomp out the water content to make dried chuño, which can be stored for years. (It’s worth reiterating that potatoes are a good source of vitamins, minerals, protein, and complex carbohydrates.) The tuber’s cold tolerance was what spurred its popularity in eastern Europe, although it took a while for Europeans in general to figure out what to do with the New World curiosity. In the 1580s, Sir Walter Raleigh’s kitchen gardener waited until the potato flowers set seeds, and then sent those to the cook, presuming they were what was eaten.
The Amazon’s celebrated, wildly diverse bounty of fruit, nut, and palm trees is there because what we think of as untrammeled forests are in fact old orchards. And the state of Wari, located east of Lima, Peru, and one of the forerunners of the Inca, practiced innovative techniques of terracing, which soaks up more sunlight than steep slopes, and snowmelt-fed irrigation in the Andes. “By the end of the first millennium A.D., Wari techniques had reclaimed more than a million acres of cropland from mountainsides that almost anywhere else would have been regarded as impossibly dry, steep, and cold,” Mann wrote.
Let’s circle back to maize—in its modern-day incarnation, a flashpoint in the GMO labeling wars. “At the DNA level, all the major cereals—wheat, rice, maize, millet, barley, and so on—are surprisingly alike. But despite their genetic similarity, maize looks and acts different than the rest,” Mann continued. “Left untended, other cereals are capable of propagating themselves. But because maize kernels are wrapped inside a tough husk, human beings must sow the species—it essentially cannot reproduce on its own…little wonder that the Mexican National Museum of Culture claimed in a 1982 exhibition that maize ‘was not domesticated but created’—almost from scratch.”
There are a few differing and hotly disputed theories about the origin of maize, but scientists do tend to agree that the Indians who cultivated the species about 6,000 years ago were aggressive and knowledgeable plant breeders. “As a rule domestic plants are less genetically diverse than wild species, because breeders try to breed out characteristics they don’t want. Maize is one of the few farm species that is more diverse than most wild plants,” Mann wrote.
And not only did the Indians create a new crop, they created a new environment to put it in—a milpa. The term means “maize field” but refers to something far more sophisticated and complex. In a milpa, farmers plant perhaps a dozen crops at once, including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chiles, sweet potato, jicama, amaranth, and a tropical legume called mucuna.
Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary, Mann explained. Maize lacks digestible niacin and the amino acids lysine and tryptophan; beans have lysine and tryptophan, but not the amino acids cystine and methionine, which maize provides. “Squashes provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, ‘is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.’ ” There are places in Mesoamerica that have been continuously cultivated for 4,000 years and are still productive, Wilkes told Mann. “The milpa is the only system that permits that kind of long-term use.”
For many of us, the closest we’ll get to a milpa is our own backyard garden plot or a motley collection of plants in pots or grow boxes on a patio or apartment balcony. It’s there we’ll see and taste the effects of the Columbian Exchange.
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