Peppers, potatoes, pineapples: How the ‘real discoveries’ of Columbus changed history
Thursday, August 16, 2018
Who can forget the old primary school poem that began, "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue"?
What we may not so readily recall is the fact that Christopher Columbus made three more voyages in the service of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella — in 1493, 1498 and 1502. All of those adventures, which led him from Cuba in the north to Panama and Venezuela in the south, were made in relentless pursuit of a sea lane to the Pacific and the riches of Asia.
Columbus well knew that rival Portuguese explorers had reached Asia as early as 1420 by sailing south along the West African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope and had returned with a bounty of gold, pearls and spices.
He was determined, however, to find a direct water route west from Europe to Asia. Instead, he accidentally stumbled upon the Americas.
Although Columbus (or Cristóbal Colón as he would have been known at the time) is credited with “discovering” the New World, that wasn’t really the case — millions of people already lived there — but his journeys did lay the groundwork for eventual Spanish colonization of much of the Americas. They also helped introduce and spread the influence of Catholicism, something that was very important to the devoutly religious Spanish monarchs.
Growing ever more obsessed, Columbus sailed from island to island in what we now know as the Caribbean, looking for the "pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices and other objects and merchandise whatsoever" that he had promised his Spanish patrons, but the islands produced little in the way of traditional riches.
What they did yield was a treasure trove of an entirely different kind — a find that probably didn’t seem of great value at the time — New World foods.
Arriving in the Bahamas in 1492, Columbus and his crew encountered the Arawak, a thriving and peaceful indigenous people who drew sustenance from an array of colorful native crops that were completely new to the Spaniards.
The local larder included corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, cassava root, gourds, pumpkins and other squash, avocados, peanuts, pecans, cashews and cacao (chocolate). Tropical fruits unknown to Europeans such as pineapple, guava, mango and papaya also enhanced the native diet.
Columbus took great interest in these New World foods. He made numerous notations in his logs, describing how native meals were prepared — comparing those new taste sensations to the bland and boring European diet of the day. Even as the Renaissance was fostering cultural and economic enlightenment across the continent, Europe still grew just 16 plants as foods.
With little other tangible booty to account for his first voyage of discovery — and minus one of his ships, Santa Maria, that went aground and had to be abandoned — Columbus loaded Niña and Pinta with a broad sampling of Caribbean comestibles, a dozen or so native slaves and set sail for home on Jan. 16, 1493.
Much of the cargo was perishable, of course, turning into mush during the long two-month voyage. Seeds, however, survived the crossing and were soon being planted in gardens across southern Spain.
Given the region’s warm Mediterranean climate, combined with agricultural advances introduced by earlier Moorish invaders (to wit the marvelous gardens of Alhambra and Grenada), Europe was quickly growing its own New World foods.
To say that these novel new edibles were a sensation is an understatement. They were especially au courant among the continent’s royal courts — the privileged naturally being the first to benefit from them.
To help understand the impact of New World victuals on the food culture and nutrition of Old World Europe, here are just a few examples:
Although Portuguese explorers had returned from Asia in the mid-1400s with black pepper (that was ground for use as a spice), it was extremely rare and expensive. The several varieties of sweet and hot peppers that Columbus imported not only added some real kick to European cuisine but also found new uses as well.
Bell peppers, for example, were stuffed with meat, rice and other fillings to become popular as main dishes emerging from Spanish, French, Italian, and Eastern European kitchens. Capsicum, an ingredient found in certain hot peppers, was discovered to be effective not only to heat up a stew but also to relieve joint pain when compounded as a topical cream.
The starchy potato became a popular alternative to the turnip as a staple carbohydrate in the European diet — once people learned to eat the tuber itself rather than the plant’s poisonous stems and leaves.
By the way, it wasn’t Columbus, but Spanish conquistadores, led by Francisco Pizzaro, who brought the potato to Europe from Peru following their conquest of the Inca nation. Pizzaro utilized the durable, filling tuber to feed his army during its later campaign in Mexico — and potatoes have subsequently served as a mess kit essential for armies the world over.
Fast-forward to the present, and we find that as a world food, potatoes are second in human consumption only to rice – and potato chips rank as the world’s top-selling snack food.
One of Columbus’ best-loved discoveries was chocolate. He first encountered it in 1502, during his fourth voyage that led him to the north coast of South America.
Chocolate comes from the cacao (cocoa in English) tree, a tropical plant that bears oblong pods of six to eight inches in length, each containing up to 40-50 beans.
The Aztec people prized cacao beans. They roasted and ground them and then mixed them with water and honey to constitute a stimulating beverage they called "chocolate" — a combination of the Aztec names choco for cacao and lati for water.
In 1519, explorer Hernan Cortez sent a report to Spanish King Charles V, declaring, "A cup of this precious beverage would put a man in condition to make a whole day’s march without need for other food."
Cacao contains theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine, so it was essentially one of the world’s first energy drinks. Cortez sent a shipment of cacao beans to Spain, where chocolate was quickly embraced for its stimulative powers — and hot chocolate soon became the national drink of Spain.
For decades, Spain jealously forbade the export of chocolate to other countries, but its European neighbors eventually began importing cacao beans from their tropical colonies and consumption of chocolate spread across the continent.
It was the Dutch who, in the mid-18th century, developed a press to extract the fat component from the beans to produce cacao butter — and by recombining the butter with powdered chocolate, they were able to make solid chocolate.
Enter Mr. Cadbury in Great Britain and Mr. Hershey in Pennsylvania. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Among all the New World foods introduced by Columbus, none created greater furor than the pineapple. Spanish King Ferdinand II was duly impressed, noting, "Its flavor excels all other fruits."
The king’s envoy to Panama, Gonzalo Valdes, wrote, "It is the most beautiful of any fruits I have seen, I do not suppose there is in the whole world any other of so exquisite and lovely appearance." While the pineapple’s spiky, exotic presence gained a lot of attention, so did its sweetness.
Renaissance Europe was essentially bereft of common sweets. Sugar refined from cane was a scarce and expensive commodity and fruits were subject to short growing seasons. The pineapple may well have been the most delicious thing anyone had ever eaten.
The pineapple sent European royalty into a frenzy, seeing in its rosette of long, waxy leaves a crown. English King Charles II and France’s Louis XIV christened the fruit "King-Pine," elevating it as a status symbol among the aristocracy.
Royal gardeners spent fortunes trying to grow the tropical plant. China-maker Wedgwood produced tableware with pineapple themes for the upper class. Stone pineapples appeared on plinths outside grand manor houses and atop garden walls and greenhouses as symbols of welcome and hospitality.
For centuries following its introduction in Europe, the pineapple would remain synonymous with nobility, wealth and good taste.
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