by John Schwartz
in "Newsweek" (Special Issue, Fall/Winter 1991, pp. 58-62)
Imagine, if you will, a time when English food was actually
worse than it is today.
Imagine Italian cuisine without
tomatoes, or Mexican food that was literally grub--insect larvae,
as well as eggs.
Columbus, sailing West in search of Eastern
spices and gold, brought about cultural revolutions that reached
virtually every nation in the world.
The changes in the global
menu don't simply mean better eating--the new foods altered the
fates of nations and strengthened a growing sense of national
"The French, Italian, and Spanish food 'traditions' we
now think of as primeval all sprang up relatively recently,"
writes Raymond Sokolov in his new book "Why We Eat What We Eat,"
"and would be unrecognizable without the American foods sent
across the water, mostly in Spanish boats."
Europe was certainly ready for a change.
The lower and
merchant classes had put up with a dull menu for years.
commonly ate dark bread made with rye and wheat; cabbage soup and
cheeses (or cheese curds) filled out a typical meal.
families ate much of the same things, but they enjoyed more
variety in flavors, thanks to the obsession with Asian spices
that first set Columbus on his way.
Spices also had a practical
purpose for the pre-refrigerator era: they blanketed the smell
and flavor of decay.
At the upper end of the social scale, meals approached the
A noble meal might include whole roasted peacocks
with skin and feathers reattached after cooking--or even four and
twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
"Presentation was enormously
important," says Bridget Henisch, a food historian at State
College in Pennsylvania.
Feasts, she explains, "went with the
whole medieval enjoyment of heraldry and drama, the music and
trumpets announcing the arrival of the main dish." The thing
they were hungriest for was novelty--and Columbus provided it.
Each new cargo transformed the European menu.
may not have produced traditional spices and condiments such as
clove, ginger, cardamom and almonds, but they produced potatoes,
corn and other colorful crops that excited the 16th-century
Peanuts and vanilla, as well as green beans, pineapple
and turkey all broadened the horizons of European chefs.
the exotic new crops had humble beginnings; before the tomato
made its way into the cuisines of Spain, Italy and other European
societies, it was a weed in the Aztec maize fields.
The Aztecs came to cultivate tomatoes in astonishing