In writing the history of culinary practices, there is a tendency to emphasize the ethnic character of diets (González 1988). Yet nowhere are historical entanglements more apparent than in the international character of modern cuisine, even if explicit ethnic territories are strongly defended. Foods are often defined with apparent regard to national origin: Indian corn, Irish potatoes, Italian tomatoes, Dutch chocolate, and Hawaiian pineapple, to name but a few. However, the plants that form the basis of many European cuisines in fact originated in the Americas (Keegan 1992), and American diets were transformed in what Alfred Crosby (1986) has described as the creation of the neo-Europes.
“You call it corn, we call it maize.” Contrary to the American television commercial in which a very Navaho-looking women makes that statement, the word is actually of Taino origin. Peter Martyr was among the first Europeans to describe this plant that the native West Indians called maíz (Zea mays) (Sauer 1966: 55). Other Taino words for plants and animals have also entered the English lexicon, including cazabi and yuca (Manihot esculenta Crantz), guayaba (Psidium guajava L.), bixa (Bixa orellana L.), iguana, and manati (Trichechus manatus) (Oviedo 1959: 13–16;Taylor 1977: 20–1).
Cultigens from the circum-Caribbean lowlands have also been of significant effect (Keegan et al. 1992). Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum Mill.) were first encountered in coastal Mexico, where the Spanish were also treated to a drink called chocolatl, a blend of cacao (Theobroma cacao L.), peppers (Capsicum spp.), and other spices (including Bixa orellana L.). Cacao won immediate acceptance; together, it and vanilla (Vanilla spp.), a semidomesticated lowland orchid, have become the most important flavorings in the world. In contrast, the tomatl (tomato) languished under the specter of its membership in the “deadly” nightshade family of plants. First grown as an ornamental, and only much later as food, the tomato eventually reshaped Italian cuisine.