To save content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Dazzling-white sugar, ground down from huge Dutch sugar loaves … sweeter and more yielding than Venetian sugar loaves, the white gold of confectioners and pastry-cooks.
(Piero Camporesi, Exotic Brew, 157)
Sugar – a preservative, a fermenting agent, a sweetener of food and drink without changing the flavor – has revolutionized the food processing industry; and sugar cane was the most revolutionary of all plants to reach the Americas. Today sugar – actually the chemical sucrose, extracted from the cane – is the world's best-selling food, surpassing even wheat.
This giant grass with stems juicy with a sappy pulp is generally believed to be a native of New Guinea, although India and China are often put forward as alternative cradles because it was cultivated in both places in ancient times. Much later (around 500 bce) the Persians came across sugarcane growing in the Indus Valley and, although humans had doubtless coaxed sweet juice out of bits of cane by chewing on them for eons, the Indus Valley growers may have been the first to use the cane in a more sophisticated fashion by pressing it for its juice, then concentrating that juice by boiling it.
In any event, the Persians quickly adopted cane cultivation and, by the seventh century ad, had refined the process sufficiently to produce a nearly white loaf. Some of these sugar loaves entered Europe through Venice as one more spice called “white salt.”
There is no more intriguing problem in the history of food than that of how cultural barriers to the transmission of foods and foodways have been traversed or broken.
ANOTHER LARGE and daunting twenty-first century problem involves equal access to food. Today, fertility rates in third-world countries have decreased sharply even as global per capita calorie consumption has risen, the twin phenomena casting doubt on predictions of swelling populations outstripping the globe's food supply. Such predictions were routinely generated by that alarming increase in the number of people occupying planet Earth between 1900 and 1990, which was the equal of four times the sum of all previous increases in the whole of human history. But although we are now 6 billion, with predictions of an increase to 9 billion by 2050, it would seem that agricultural advances have probably resolved concerns about food quantity. There are enough calories for everyone. Yet fully three-quarters of the world's population derive their calories from a diet that is low in high-quality protein compared to the other quarter who consume too much of it in diets that are definitely not tailored for a small planet. And the problem is, as Tony McMichael points out, that if food consumption was somehow made equal in terms of quality, the globe could not currently support our 6 billion; to do so would require two extra planet earths given our current technologies, and to support 10 billion would require four extra earths.
… Christopher Columbus began a process that in the words from a passage in one of the books of Esdras … “Shook the earth, moved the round world, made the depths shudder and turned creation upside down.”
Eugene Lyon (1992)
IN THE AMERICAS, Spain and Portugal laid claim to a vast storehouse of strange new plant foods. In the West Indies – the gateway to Spain's Americas – a sampling of the groceries that greeted Columbus and his men included zamia (Zamia integrifolia), manioc (Manihot esculenta), and maize (Zea mays) – these used for breads and gruels. Then there were myriad other mysterious vegetables like sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas), yautía (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), beans (genus Phaseolus), and peanuts (Arachis hypogaea). New seasonings were encountered, such as allspice (Pimenta dioica) and chilli peppers (genus Capsicum), along with indigenous West Indies fruits such as guava (Psidium guajava), soursop (Annona muricata), mamey (Mammea americana), custard apple (Annona reticulata), sapodilla (Achras zapota), pawpaw (Carica papaya), and pineapple (Ananas comosus). And these were just a few of the American foods that Europeans had never before laid eyes on nor set tooth to.
Fish and mollusks had provided much of the animal protein for those South American Tainos who had settled in the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas, but sea turtles and their eggs, land crabs (Cardisoma sp.), insects, and small game such as the iguana (family Iguanidae) – which became extinct in the West Indies after the Europeans arrived – also made contributions.
Why, then, the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
In the south of Southeast Asia, Alocasia or dryland taro, perhaps originating in India or Burma, has been under cultivation for at least 7,000 years. Wetland (Colocasia) taro, yams, and (probably) dry and wet land rice came along later. Yet, as mentioned earlier, a mystery is why the Austronesian farmer-pioneers, who sailed off to settle the Philippines and the East Indies at about this time (6000 bce), were accompanied by taro, yams, pigs, and dogs, but not rice. The most logical answer is that rice had not yet become a staple in Southeast Asia. But it is not a particularly satisfactory answer because, despite many ensuing waves of Pacific pioneers, when the Europeans first entered the world's largest body of water, rice was absent from the whole of the Pacific, save for the Mariana Islands. Did rice somehow get lost from the horticultural complex? Or were taro and yams just easier to cultivate?
The pioneers originated in Southeast Asia and neighboring New Guinea, and their initial waves fanned out into the Philippines and the East Indies. These were an Austronesian-speaking people whose descendents, with their distinctive Lapita pottery, became the ancestors of the Polynesians. Around 3,500 years ago they launched epic voyages of exploration and colonization, moving swiftly in their double-hulled canoes to establish settlements in Fiji, and then in Samoa and Tonga – the latter two islands becoming jump-off points for the eventual settlement of the rest of Polynesia, ending with Hawaii around 1,500 years ago and New Zealand some 1,000 to 2,000 years ago.
The expansion of Islam began shortly after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632. By 750 the Muslims had conquered an area running from the Indus Valley westward through the Middle East to the Iberian Peninsula, and elites were speaking Arabic from Spain to Central Asia.
The Arabs, like the Romans before them, learned to use the wind systems of the monsoon (the winds reverse themselves seasonally) to sail from the Persian Gulf eastward into the Indian Ocean in November, and then return to port during the summer months. Regular eighth-century trading voyages to China saw wool and iron exchanged for silks and spices. About two centuries later, when trade with China was disrupted by the fall of the Tang Empire (907), the Arabs skipped the middleman and headed directly to the East Indies, capturing the spice trade and spreading Islam as they went.
Christian Europe, an implacable enemy of Islam, nonetheless admired Islamic cuisine and benefited from Islam's commercial activity. That activity ensured that spices reached the Continent on a circuitous path from the East Indies, as well as new foodstuffs such as sugarcane (genus Saccharum), mangos (Mangifera indica), dates, and bananas. Moreover, toward the end of the twelfth century, the wooly merino sheep was introduced to Spain – an animal originally developed by the Romans and later exported to Africa.
Earth here is so kind, that just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest.
Douglas Jerrold (1803–1857)
THE FIRST EUROPEANS to settle in North America survived on Native American staples until Old World favorites began to thrive. As Alfred Crosby has shown, practically all Old World plants, animals, and humans did well in regions with climates similar to those of Europe (he termed them “neo-Europes”) by shoving aside more fragile competitors, when there were any competitors at all.
However such “Ecological Imperialism” managed only a faltering start in Florida, and sixteenth-century Spanish soldiers and missionaries had to fill their stomachs mostly with native maize, squash, and beans along with sweet potatoes transplanted from the West Indies. Bitter oranges had been planted by early explorers and by the end of the sixteenth century sweet oranges were growing, although no commercial possibilities were foreseen until the English took Florida in 1763 and, in 1776, began shipping St. Augustine's oranges back to England. Sugarcane was also placed under cultivation but, as a rule, where sugarcane will grow, wheat will not, and wheat flour was always an import to Spanish Florida.
Old World plant vigor, however, was exhibited by peach trees introduced directly from Europe that raced across the American continent well in advance of the Europeans. Native Americans became fond of the fruits, and, by the time of the American Revolution, peaches were so well established that many assumed them to be American natives.
Bread is a very simple manufactured article whose rise in the oven is closely related to the rise of the sun in the sky.
Piero Camporesi (1989)
Egypt and North Africa
For thousands of years after the beginnings of Mesopotamian agriculture, an abundance of game animals, lake and river fish, and wild cereals in North Africa did little to discourage a foraging way of life. Hunter-gatherer groups adopted livestock herding, yet continued to gather wild plants – especially the root parts of sedges, rushes, and cattails in riparian environments. But around 5000 bce the Sahara began expanding, an expansion that accelerated sharply around 2000 bce. Desertification ushered people into fertile oases, and especially into the Nile Valley, where periodic migrations from the northwest brought knowledge of the Middle Eastern plant complex. It was in that valley that first barley and later wheat began to flourish, although until farming took firm hold, Nile fish (particularly catfish) and root foods continued to sustain many. By around 4000 bce, however, small states and kingdoms had arisen, supported by “taxes” levied on peasant farmers on food that went directly into the storehouses of the rulers. The small principalities gradually evolved into the two large states of Upper and Lower Egypt that were fused around 3100 bce under the first of the pharaohs. Exploitation quickened of a peasantry that now had nowhere to go. Desertification had trapped them in the Nile Valley, where the Pharaoh owned all of the land.
There is in every animal's eye a dim image and gleam of humanity, a flash of strange light through which their life looks out and up to our great mastery of command over them, and claims the fellowship of the creature if not of the soul.
HUNTING WAS THE MAJOR preoccupation of people everywhere around 18,000 years ago and there were plenty of caribou and bison to be hunted – these animals still staring out at us from cave paintings at Lascaux in southwestern France and Altamira in Spain. But over millennia, as temperatures grew warmer, herds were nudged northward. The caribou, probably the most important game animal in Europe, had long sustained humans and some followed the animals. Others, however, faced up to the problem by taking charge of the caribou, leading them between winter and summer feeding grounds, and harvesting individuals as needed for food. Does this mean that animal domestication preceded that of plants? Not really. These animals were probably no more domesticated than the wild grasses being harvested at the time. Most experts are convinced that domesticated plants came before domesticated animals, save the dog, and that the former were vital to the domestication of the latter.
Climatic change at the tail end of the Ice Age produced forests on what had been bare steppes and crafted a habitat of wild plants that fed smaller creatures such as deer, hare, boar, and various birds.
The world of food requires unobtrusive erudition. It is well known that curiosity is the basic thrust toward knowledge, which in turn is the necessary precondition for pleasure.
AS WE JUST SAW, American anguish about weight and well-being has prompted scientific probes into obscure food-related alleyways. It also did much to advance food globalization in America. During the 1950s, Americans with a hankering for the foreign had pizza parlors for eating out and canned chow mein and chop suey for eating in, but most were still meat and potatoes people. It was a time when nobody used garlic and only winos drank wine. But this stolid unimaginative image was chipped away at beginning with the refined tastes of highly visible Jacqueline Kennedy and her fondness for French, Italian, and even British foods. Moreover, Americans took a good look at their waistlines, had their hearts checked, worried about their fat consumption, and began in earnest to adopt foreign foods increasingly thought to be healthy.
A stick prodding the public in this direction was the controversial 1977 document entitled Dietary Goals for the United States, published by the Senate Select Committee headed by George McGovern. Its 1978 bombshell edition alleged that the nation was under siege from an epidemic of “killer diseases” – heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes, and obesity brought on by changes in the American diet during the preceding half-century. The document called for a more “natural” diet, as well as more nutritional research to counter the epidemic.
In short, Europe's colonization of Africa had nothing to do with differences between European and African peoples as white racists assume. Rather, it was due to accidents of geography and biogeography – in particular, to the continent's different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species. That is, the different historical trajectories of Africa and Europe stem ultimately from differences in real estate.
Jared Diamond (1997)
ARGUABLY, THE UNITED STATES and Europe benefited more than most of the world's regions from the quickened tempo of food globalization that followed the Columbian Exchange because, by increasing food supplies, it fueled their respective Industrial Revolutions.
This synergism was first seen in Great Britain, where the calories in sugar and potatoes from the New World stoked labor. In the towns and cities where that labor was readily available, and where even more labor could be accommodated, industries began to arise. Cities and towns, of course, raised little food so that workers had to be fed from rural areas – the food reaching urban centers via an increasingly complex network of railroads. As this occurred, more and more rural individuals were attracted to city life and factory wages, draining the countryside of manpower. Consequently, agriculture, too, had to be industrialized, which, in turn, meant even more migration to the cities because far fewer hands were needed in the fields.
Food production also became mechanized, its transportation and distribution organized, and its processing, capitalized.
A mountain climate means frost, and hail, and storms, against which desirable domesticated plants should be able to protect themselves … [R]oot crops provide the remedy to those conditions, and among them the potato is preeminent.
Sophia D. Coe (1994)
IN SOUTH AMERICA, as in Mesoamerica, hunter-gatherers encountered those many difficulties that eventually thrust practically everybody into sedentary agriculture. Around 11,000 years ago people in the Andean region were large-animal hunters, employing fluted points to bring down the giant sloth or the horse – their preferred prey. As these animals became extinct, fluted points disappeared and were replaced by others that indicate a switch to smaller game – deer, camelids, birds, rodents, and the like. Gathered foods such as amaranth and chenopodium seeds (especially quinoa) supplemented the diet, along with beans and white and sweet potatoes.
Archeological evidence in the Andean region from around 9,000 years ago, however, indicates some sidling toward sedentism. There was increase in the number of camelid bones that, in turn, suggests the beginning of camelid herding, which eventually begat the domesticated llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Lama pacos). These wild South American members of the camel family were serious sources of food in the Andean highlands of Peru and Bolivia and may have been domesticated for their flesh as well as for their labor, that flesh freeze-dried to become charqui, which lasts indefinitely. Native Americans who kept llamas and alpacas did not milk them, however, which meant they passed up a good source of protein.