What We Eat: Connecting the Dots - #113

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the Americas for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF: When Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean he entered a world with almost no domesticated animals.  No cattle, no horses, no pigs. However, on his second voyage in 1493 he had a full complement of cattle and pigs.  The animals did well because the local diseases did not affect them; there was an unlimited amount of feed, and few predators.  They reproduced at an extraordinary rate and within 10 years they had taken up residence on most of the Caribbean islands.

Pigs were the first to take on the New World. Sailors would “seed” a remote island by leaving behind a family of pigs. The pigs would reproduce and be ready for dinner when the next group of Europeans stopped in.

On his second voyage Columbus also brought in both cattle and the plow which dramatically altered the landscape and the diet of the Americas.  The oxen were strong enough to pull an iron plow across the plains. The plow transformed the grasslands into fields of wheat and corn. The cattle converted unfarmed grasslands into milk and meat. Native Americans had no animals that gave them this kind of protein. By the 1600s one of the least expensive foods in the Americas was meat.

Of all the animals imported into the Americas the horse was the essential element in the Spanish conquest.

DANIEL GADE ON CAMERA: You could go to the coast in your ship, but then you have to find a way to move up into the highlands in both those cases, Mexico and Peru, and so this is where the horse came into play.  It provided that mobility.  So that was one thing.  Another thing was that a mounted horseman, could sweep down on a foot soldier with great efficiency and speed, and discombobulate that foot soldier so much that it left him vulnerable to being killed.  So it was a very efficient way to kill the Indians. Thirdly, there was a psychological advantage here of having a horse, because native people of the New World had never seen an animal like that.  And so to them, this was some kind of a mythic, supernatural being.


BURT WOLF: By the time Columbus arrived in the Americas, wine had become the beverage of choice for the Spanish, it was what Columbus’ crew drank and he had dozens of casks on board.

Considering its importance the Spanish were surprised to find that the Native Americans, who lived in a land filled with grapes, did not make wine.

New Spain’s first attempts to make wine were in Mexico but they failed miserably. They had much better success in their South American colonies where a major wine business eventually developed. English settlers in the Americas were also interested in producing wine. Their new colonies were overrun with native grapes and it seemed obvious that with a little work good wine would be as near as the next harvest. Wrong! The wine they tried to make at Jamestown Virginia was dismal.

But within 200 years the Spanish missions in Mexico were able to make wine that was pretty good. In the middle of the 1700s, the Franciscans moved north to California.

CHARLES SULLIVAN ON CAMERA: In 1769, they brought wine with them.  They needed wine, of course, for the mass.  And there was no successful attempt to produce any vineyards in the early days.  It was just too hazardous a life.  They depended upon imported wine.  But gradually, by the end of the '70s, Father Sera was able to get the officials in Mexico to get the southern missions to send cuttings to San Juan Capistrano.  And by the early 1780s, you had vineyards all the way up to what is today Sonoma.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: West Africa and the Atlantic Islands off the coast of Africa were the staging areas for Europe’s voyages of discovery. They used the Canary Islands and Madeira to test the plantation system and the use of slave labor. When Christopher Columbus planted the first sugar cane in the Mediterranean he also planted the idea of an enslaved labor force—a labor force that came almost exclusively from Africa.

BURT WOLF: In the areas where slaves were allowed to grow their own food, they planted okra, bananas, watermelon, yams, rice and peanuts.

The slaves came from many different tribes with many different gastronomic traditions. And when they were brought together on the boats and in the plantations they began to exchange those traditions.

JESSSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: They didn't come from the same place.  They didn't speak the same language.  And so, what happens is, as they are juxtaposed within this New World environment, there is this trade-off, and A may come with B, and B may discover C, and so you get the evolution and the creation of what becomes, I contend, one of the world's original fusion foods, which is Creole food.

When you start to talk about the influence of black cooks in this hemisphere, on the food of this hemisphere, you almost don't know where to start….The soupy stews over starches…the gumbos…leafy greens.  But all of those things are African. You'll find that the whole technique of frying in deep oil, and deep oil, deep fat frying, one of my preferred culinary methods, is arguably, African.

BURT WOLF: As our nation developed, much of the cooking was done by Africans and the hand that stirs the pot usually has a lot to say about what goes into that pot and how it’s cooked.  To a considerable extent American cooking has been shaped by the contributions of African foods and African American cooks.


MARK PENDERGRAST ON CAMERA: There was a French lieutenant named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu who became obsessed with the idea that he wanted to take a coffee tree to the New World.  He was stationed on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. So, he got hold of a tree from the Paris Botanical Gardens, and he took it on a ship. And the way he tells the story, which is probably a little over-dramatic, you know, he had to give it half of his ration of water because there was a drought.  There was a big storm, and it almost got swept overboard. There was an evil Dutchman who didn't want him to take it, and he ripped off one of the branches.  But eventually, he brought it to Martinique and it flourished, and from that one tree, supposedly, most of the coffee in the Western hemisphere, has descended.

BURT WOLF: The British colonists in North America arrived with a taste for coffee. John Smith, who led the settlers at Jamestown, had traveled in Turkey and he loved coffee.  The coffeehouse also crossed the Atlantic with the colonists; in 1689 Boston opened its first coffeehouse.

As The United States industrialized, coffee found a new role. In the previous two centuries, coffee and coffeehouses had brought thinkers, artists, writers, and politicians together for conversations that initiated social change and political change. But coffee soon became the fuel that powered the industrial laborer. For workers who had to be at the factory or office early in the morning, and often for round-the-clock shift work, coffee became a necessity.

Coffee is the world’s leading cash crop, the second most actively-traded commodity in the world, after oil, and the most widely used psychoactive substance on the planet.


BURT WOLF: The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were filled with biscuits, pork, beef, cod, anchovies, chickpeas, raisins, olive oil and fortified wine—typical provisions for Spanish ships of the period and typical of the diet of the people living on the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

 As Spanish and the Portuguese colonists settled down in the Americas the foods they brought with them from the Mediterranean were blended into the foods available in America and a new hybrid cuisine evolved.

ELISABETH ROZIN ON CAMERA: There are several, what I would call, true, long-lasting, forever marriages that occurred after 1492, when the foods of the Old World and the foods of the New World and the culture of both came together.  These are, I think, marriages that occur with the aid, for one, of olive oil, and there is that instant union of olive oil and tomatoes which we know of, as course, primarily from the cooking of Southern Italy and the famous red sauces.  But those red tomato sauces occur throughout the Mediterranean.  The second one is the union of olive oil with the sweet peppers, which, occurs, of course, in the sofrito of Spain and occurs in so many composed and salad dishes and so forth.  The third, I think, wonderful marriage, which occurs is that of the citrus fruits, lemon, lime, sour orange, with the chili peppers of Mexico. And there was an instant alliance formed.  By the way, when you talk about the marriage of certain ingredients, there is one product that we all know and love.  It's become a feature of our festive tables and occurs in every martini.  And that is, of course, the little green unripe Spanish olive, stuffed with a little bit of red pimento.  Now, how palpable a symbol of the union of two worlds can you get?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Columbus was well aware that sugar cane was a very valuable crop. His mother-in-law owned a sugar plantation on the island of Madeira and Chris picked up a little extra change transporting sugar from there to the Italian port city of Genoa. On his second voyage in 1493 he planted sugarcane on the island that is now known as the Dominican Republic. It was the first sugarcane planted in the Americas.

BURT WOLF: The Caribbean islands were perfectly suited for the production of sugarcane. They have lots of flat land, plenty of water and a climate that is hot enough but not too dry. By 1640 sugarcane was the crop of choice in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba.

SIDNEY MINTZ ON CAMERA: It is said that there were over a million people in that region when it was first discovered in 1492, but certainly by the end of the 17th Century, that population had diminished to nothing, really to nothing.  So it was a pioneer area. The one thing it didn't have was labor. And Europeans understood that if they brought in free labor to work on those plantations, that free labor would simply pick up and walk away.  There would be no way to make those men work as long as there was land to be had for the asking.  The only answer you have under those circumstances is somehow to tie down your labor force.  To pin it down.  And slavery was sort of the natural answer.  And Africa was the nearest place from which to get large numbers of people.  So there's an interesting kind of equilibrium between this sort of production and the enslavement of fellow human beings.

BURT WOLF: Columbus and the European explorers brought sugar, coffee, and the Mediterranean foods of olive oil, wheat, dates, livestock and wine to the Americas. And here’s what they brought back.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When Columbus set sail from Spain one of his objectives was to get King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella into the pepper business. So when he arrived in the Caribbean and the natives gave him a taste of a pungent fruit, he decided to call it pepper.  And he had two good reasons.  First, it did something to his mouth that felt like pepper, and second, and much more important, he was getting paid to find pepper, and so he found it.

BURT WOLF: For thousands of years, hot peppers have been used in Mexico, Central and South America for their medicinal effects. The Aztecs rubbed hot peppers on sore muscles. The Maya made a drink of hot peppers, which they used to cure stomach pains. They also rubbed hot peppers on their gums to stop toothaches.

IRWIN ZIMENT ON CAMERA: Columbus was a magnificent neurotic-deluded neurotic.  And I like to think that probably he also had bronchitis and had a strong personal interest in looking for a better cure for his bronchitis.  And ideally finding the right type of peppers would have been an adequate treatment.   And I don't say this entirely lightly because there’s good evidence from earliest history that peppers were not just used as food flavors they were used as medicines and one of the major things they were always used for in history as hot remedies they were utilized for treating cold diseases.  Namely, the common cold and bronchitis.

BURT WOLF: It appears that one out of every five people on the planet eat hot peppers everyday.  Most of the people say they do that because they like the taste but there may be an additional reason that’s even better.  Scientists have discovered that people who eat hot peppers are generally healthier than people who don’t.  Especially in hot climates.  There’s something in hot pepper and also in garlic that helps kill the microorganisms that spoil food.  So societies that have developed without refrigeration over the past three or four thousand years have incorporated hot peppers into their diet.  And they’re healthier for it.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: On November 4th, 1492, Columbus came ashore on what is now the island of Cuba. The natives greeted him and gave him two gifts. One was tobacco, and one was corn.

BURT WOLF: His diary for the next day contained the following entry:

“There was a great deal of tilled land sown with a sort of bean and a sort of grain they called Mahiz, which tasted good. It was baked or dried and made into flour.”

On one day, the American plants of corn and tobacco were introduced to the rest of the world.  The Indians presented their corn to Columbus because it was a valuable food but also because it was the basis of their civilization.

BETTY FUSSELL ON CAMERA: “They used it for every possible food and for every possible sacred ceremonial use because corn is at the heart of all the mythology, all the calendar, all the religions, all the rituals of Meso-America. The original word corn, mahaiz in Arawak, meant seed of life. Because life in the created universe began with corn, with the corn gods, but it’s really with the seed, the womb of life.  Mother Earth was also Mother Corn, being fertilized really by the sun, by the heavens, by Father Sun.  Out of that, the universe sprouts.  But what sprouts?   A corn tree, the corn tree becomes the axle of the universe. A corn plant, you know, and all the cobs on that tree are heads of gods.  So the corn god is represented in the plant. Man was created from a dough of corn and blood.


BURT WOLF: Between conquering and trading the Aztecs came in contact with many different cultures and were exposed to dozens of new foods. The Mayans introduced the Aztecs to the tomato, which they immediately accepted because it reminded them of something they were already eating — the husk tomato. They juiced them, added some chili peppers, ground up a little pumpkin seed, and had what we call salsa.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Spanish were pretty good at conquering too and eventually conquered the Aztecs. The first Spaniards to see a tomato were with Cortez when he invaded Mexico in 1519. They called it a tomate.

BURT WOLF: Tomatoes did well throughout southern Europe—Spain, Southern France and Italy slowly incorporated them into their diets.

PAUL ROZIN ON CAMERA: It took a while to be adopted.  You know, they're sort of bright and sort of frightening looking. It is hard to believe that Mediterranean cuisine didn't have tomatoes before 1600, but they didn't.  It's like the essence of Mediterranean cuisine. They already had a pasta, they already had a well, of course the green pepper or the red pepper that goes with the tomato in the sauce was also coming over from the new world, so the basic sauce that is used in the Mediterranean, except for the olive oil, is actually stuff that is new. And it is in many ways like a meat substitute.  It adds both the color and some of the taste and texture of meat to foods.  So it is widely popular, particularly in cuisines, like in the Mediterranean which is not, which are not high meat cuisines.


BURT WOLF: It looks like the potato was first cultivated in the Andean Mountains of South America about 7,000 years ago. The great centers of pre-Inca culture were high up, some as high as 12,500 feet above sea level and each night the temperature would drop below freezing. Edible crops were in short supply. But the potato was one of the few crops that could be grown at a high altitude. The Andean farmers came to rely on the potato. They also found an ingenious way of preserving them.

At first, Spanish settlers looked down on the potato and relied on corn. The potato, however, did catch on with sailors, who recognized that eating potatoes prevented scurvy. The first potatoes to reach Europe traveled on Spanish ships returning from South America.

As potatoes spread through Europe, a feedback process was set in motion: more potatoes produced more food, more food produced more people, more people produced more potatoes. The population of northern Europe grew as fast as the potato plants. In fact, the rate of population growth in northern Europe far outstripped what was taking place in other parts of the world.

All across Europe, the potato became the staple food of the poor and the new working classes. It contributed to a population increase that was big enough to provide Europe not only with extra farm laborers, but with the workforce it needed for its transformation into an industrial society.

The extraordinary healthful and nutritional value of the potato has made it a staple of American and European diets for hundreds of years. In one form or another, potatoes have become part of virtually everyone’s diet.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1502, Columbus set sail on his fourth and final voyage. As usual he was trying to get to Asia.  He believed that the islands of the Caribbean were just off shore from China and Japan. Poor guy—he never had a clue.

BURT WOLF: On this last voyage, his first landfall was in the Bay Islands about 30 miles north of Honduras. As his ship sat at anchor, the crew saw a tremendous dugout canoe.

It was a Maya trading canoe, about 150 feet long and carrying a cargo of cacao beans. Columbus was the first European to come in contact with the source of chocolate.

MICHAEL COE ON CAMERA: When the Spaniards first came to Mexico and they saw people drinking chocolate and were offered it and tried it.  They'd have thought it was horrible.  In fact, one of our sources who was an Italian traveling with him says it was only basically fit for pigs.  It was so bad.  It was bitter.  They didn't like the color of it.  It made your mouth black.  Or if they mixed it up with a spice called achiote, which is red, it made your mouth look red and dyed your lips and they thought it was the most disgusting stuff.  It wasn't until later that they realized how good it was.

BURT WOLF: So chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes, corn and chili peppers were what Columbus brought back to Europe. And in the end it was the exchange of plants and animals between the two hemispheres that totally altered the future of the world. Not politics, not religion, not gold, or silver--the events that changed our destiny were the changes in What We Eat. I’m Burt Wolf.