Food History

In the first year of my undergraduate degree, I took a course on the early modern Atlantic world(s), and one of the things the prof pointed out to me has stuck to this day. We talk a lot about what influence the Europeans had on the Americas, but very little about the opposite, that is, the influence that the Americas had on Europe.

Disease was mostly a unidirectional exchange, coming from Europe and contaminating the Americas, with the exception of syphilis, which is currently believed to be one of the few diseases which traveled the other way. (“Believed to be” is important here – we don’t know for sure!)

But one of the things we so rarely think about is food, and how dramatically European cuisine was impacted by contact with the Americas. The way my professor had us try to wrap our heads around this was pretty simple. “Imagine Irish or Eastern European food without potatoes. Imagine Italian or Spanish food without tomatoes.”

It’s pretty hard to picture, isn’t it? But these foods which we so strongly associate with these European countries are all “new world” foods, brought over to Europe only about 500 years ago. And while 500 years is certainly a long time in many ways, including cooking (Jell-O Salad certainly isn’t as popular today as it was half a century ago), when you think of how much culture is tied into these foods, it’s hard to imagine that such a strong cultural connection could have developed over only a few generations, and that cuisine could have changed so radically to completely center these foods so quickly.

Then again, when you look at how quickly and suddenly the banana became a staple in North American households (thanks to great marketing, mostly), maybe it isn’t so hard to imagine how diets could have changed so radically.

Another example of the complete 180 being done on a food is lobster. My dad has a good friend who grew up poor in Newfoundland in the 1940s. And what did poor people in Newfoundland eat at that time? Lobster. Lots and lots of lobster. My understanding is that lobster was never officially fished for, but rather lobsters would get caught up in the nets of fishing boats and they were sold for a ridiculously low price just to get rid of them. (Given that they’re basically insects and closely related to cockroaches, that’s not hard for me to believe!)

So this guy who grew up eating lobster for lunch every day was constantly made fun of in school. No one who could afford otherwise would ever knowingly eat lobster! But then, during the war, lobster wasn’t rationed like other foods, which increased its popularity, and from there it grew to be the delicacy we know it as today. In only a matter of a couple decades, lobster went from being a sign of poverty to a symbol of wealth. (The friend still to this day can’t bring himself to eat lobster, he finds it embarrassing because he can afford “better” now!)

Knowing this, I guess it isn’t really so far fetched to imagine how potatoes and tomatoes could have overtaken Europe so quickly.

And I will just leave you with this wonderful diagram of potato Europe vs tomato Europe.



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