This article originally appeared in Explore Big Sky
The Real History of Food
To study food is to study human history.
In America, we tend to have a myopic view of food and its origins, but as a nation that is comprised of many non-indigenous people, it stands to reason we have adopted ingredients and cuisines from all over the globe. Even right here at home, Native American diets, like most peoples, varied regionally, but three ingredients (affectionately know as the “three sisters”, remained staples throughout the entire future United States: Squashes, beans, and corn (corn and it’s history is worthy of a whole entire conversation on its own). But every continent tells a similar story…
For example, stop anyone on the street and ask him or her what foods define Italy. More than likely they will probably mention items like pasta, and tomatoes. We definitely associate the tomato with Mediterranean cuisine and Italy is probably on the top of that list, but they are actually native to the Andes, moved through South America, and were introduced to Europe via the Spanish revolution. In fact Italians regarded the tomato as poisonous (it is a member of the nightshade family like potatoes and eggplant) for centuries. Nor did pasta actually originate in Italy. Rather it is widely believed by historians that Marco polo brought it back from China on his more than two decade exploration of eastern Asia.
Some food history creates more questions than answers. For example, the subcontinent is so rich in flavor: spices, chilies, roots, and vegetables, when many of their staples originate elsewhere. And South America is native to many of the world’s staples that we now see commonplace in other cultures and continents. How did the potato make its way from South America to India? Most peoples there were prolific farmers but not conquerors, so rather than exploring and taking their native foods and practices with them, conquerors, merchants, soldiers, and traders took these foods from them. In addition to tomatoes, potatoes and peanuts found themselves headed to new worlds as well.
Peanuts find themselves entrenched in Western African diets, as well as in many Vietnamese and Thai dishes, again, almost commonplace there, yet what was their provenance from South America?
Schnitzel. A German and Austrian tradition no doubt, but the irony is that not only is schnitzel popular in places like Hungary, but it is almost commonplace on Israeli menus from Brooklyn to Televive. Or is it ironic? Food and human history are once again intertwined in such a simple dish. A people that have been persecuted for generations would never hang that cultures flag, or willingly speak their language, and yet without hesitation will adopt their cuisine. Conversely, cultures and entire nations have not only fought over faiths and holy land but something as elementary as hummus. Both Israeli’s and Palestinians have laid claims to hummus and have even shed blood and taken lives over its origin.
Barbeque. There may be no cooking method that garners more pride right here in America than barbeque. The method of indirect heat and smoke using any variety of flavored woods creating that succulent, smoky rib, brisket, or any other protein you may find regionally is a source of much pride. Having lived in Texas for three years, there is no other cuisine that possesses a greater facade of being homegrown in the red white and blue. But this method of cooking has roots that run centuries deep. And they run through the Caribbean. The Spanish and Portuguese then took this cooking method to Brazil and Argentina. And (sorry Texas), Florida was the first state to see what became barbeque, as we know it.
Politics agendas may prevail, armies may conquer, but food is the true trail map of culture and humanity.