What We Eat: Simple Pleasures - #111

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 ON CAMERA: As Columbus was outfitting his ships, he kept in mind the possibility that he might end up in a strange land without any familiar foods. He had visited the Portuguese colonies on the West coast of Africa and understood that having foods that he knew might be the key to his survival.

BURT WOLF: The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were filled with water, biscuits, salt pork, dried beef, cod, sardines, anchovies, chickpeas, raisins, olive oil, vinegar 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.

The Mediterranean is the place where Europe, Africa and Asia meet—the place where people from different cultures come face to face and exchange ideas, goods and food. It was the center of the classic world—ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, Carthage—they were all Mediterranean cultures. One result of this mixing of civilizations is that the food of the Mediterranean has become a blend of very different ingredients and cooking styles.

The Mediterranean is so large and encompasses so many cultures that it is difficult to talk about a Mediterranean cuisine. However, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Greece share a history in which three foods have been constant—wheat bread, olive oil and wine. All were central to the diets of the ancient world and not one of them existed in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus.


MARION NESTLE ON CAMERA: The traditional Mediterranean diet is what's been consumed in the Mediterranean for as long as we can tell.  Two thousand years in the written record.  Four thousand years in the archaeological record, based on bread, wine, and, of course, the olives, which grow mainly in the Mediterranean region, or regions like it.

The wonderful thing about the Mediterranean diet is that it was balanced in calories.  It was extremely based on vegetables.  A lifestyle that had a lot of physical activity in it, and then this olive oil, which, of course, is, as fats go, about as healthy as you can get.

BURT WOLF: The technological skills necessary to cultivate an olive tree, make the olive edible, and produce olive oil, are so complex that the ancient Greeks used “olive knowledge” as a criteria for judging a society’s development. If you could cultivate olives and use them to produce olive oil you were civilized, and your society was in a state of relative harmony. The activity and knowledge necessary to make olive oil were so demanding that in general they could only be undertaken during peaceful times.

Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, and their roots are so deep that even if the tree is cut down, its roots will survive and send out new growth. When people noticed this, the olive tree became a symbol of regeneration, immortality and dependability.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For thousands of years, olive harvesting and olive oil production was done by sailors during the winter, when rough weather forced them to stay at home. The picture of a sailor working at home reinforced the olive’s image as a symbol of security, safety and a peaceful society that was running well. When you take that and you couple it up with a bird coming back to Noah’s ark with an olive branch in its beak you’ve joined two symbols: one of safety and security with the other which is eventual regeneration.  Pretty powerful stuff.


BURT WOLF: The second food in the Mediterranean trilogy is wheat bread. Wheat, oats, barley and rye contain a complex protein known as gluten. When gluten combines with water it produces a sticky substance that makes it easier to knead bread dough and traps the gases that are released into the dough by the yeast. Wheat is the grain with the most gluten and therefore the choice of bakers making raised bread. It was bread made wheat a big deal.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For thousands of years, wheat bread has had an honored place in European cuisine. The ancient Greeks used the word “companion” to describe someone they shared their bread with. In medieval and Renaissance Europe what bread you ate told people where you were in society. The rich had a white crusty bread, the kind of stuff you find in Italy and France today. And the poor made due with bread that was produced from millet or oats.

BURT WOLF: Wheat bread was the only form of bread approved of by the Catholic Church for use in the Eucharist.

RUBEN MENDOZA ON CAMERA: Well the Eucharist, of course, is the Body and Blood of Christ.  And, of course, in the sacrament that's done every week at Mass, essentially, the pastor tells us, you know, to accept the Body and Blood of Christ.  And this was an invitation of Christ Himself.  And, of course, Christ used bread to symbolize the Body and wine to symbolize the Blood, His Blood and His Body.  And so, in that sense, it is literally a Holy Sacrament.  And it was very central to the Catholic faith, to the Christian Tradition, and, of course, to the missions of California.

BURT WOLF: When the first colonists in the Americas were unable to successfully grow wheat in the Caribbean or the coastal parts of Mexico, more conservative members of the church became concerned that the New World was the Devil’s world. God would certainly not have created a place in which the essential elements of the Eucharist were not being produced.


BURT WOLF: When Columbus set sail on his first voyage Europeans along the Mediterranean were eating a diet that was primarily based on a small number of foods that had been cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. During their conquest of Spain, the Arabs introduced a wide range of spices, taught the Spanish how to cultivate rice and shared the secret of how to distill alcohol. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The ancient Egyptians were among the first societies to distill alcohol, but they weren’t using it for Happy Hour. They were using it as a solvent to hold charcoal dust which produced the black eye makeup worn by Arab women of the time. The makeup was called al-cohol.

BURT WOLF: In essence, Elizabeth Taylor’s look in Cleopatra was the result of wearing vodka, not drinking it, and it was authentic.

The Moors took over Spain in the 700s, and introduced the distillation process to the local winemakers, who used it to fortify their wines and in the process came up with sherry. Even today, Spain produces and consumes more sherry than any other country. During Seville’s annual fair week more sherry is consumed by the residents of that single city than all the sherry poured in North America during an entire year. 


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Upper class Europeans living in the Mediterranean valued cattle and game as much as their northern European counterparts, but Mediterranean cooking has always had a greater interest in vegetables than cooking in the north. It’s probably because the Mediterranean growing season is longer and that gives them a chance to produce some extraordinarily good stuff.

BURT WOLF: But it was also the result of the intense seagoing traffic within the area. Southern European ports had centuries of contact with the Ottoman Empire—Arab, Persian and Turkish cooking often favor vegetables over meat. Much of what we consider as Southern European cooking has its origins in the Arab world.

ELISABETH ROZIN ON CAMERA: European cooking is just tremendous not just in Spain but all along the rim of the Northern Mediterranean.  Sicily, for example, is a country that has been heavily, heavily influenced by Arabic foods as well as, of course, the foods of Spain where Arabs came in and lived and influenced the culture in very significant ways.  I think the most important feature that Arabs contributed to Mediterranean cooking is the rice and the composed rice dishes, those elaborate colored, flavored, assemblages of ingredients where the rice is presented with all kinds of little bits of meat and seafood and vegetables and wonderful spices like saffron. 

BURT WOLF: Because of the easy access to the sea, Mediterranean communities had a greater appreciation of fish and seafood which was particularly important in Southern Europe. 

The dominant religion in Mediterranean Europe was Catholicism. And at the time, the Catholic calendar had 166 fast days when meat was not to be eaten. If you could afford them, fish and seafood became the protein source during fast periods. The poorer groups in society turned to beans, peas, and chickpeas for their fast days.


BURT WOLF: As Spanish and 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 developed. The cooks of Mexico began making tortillas with wheat as well as corn. Olive oil, cheese, garlic and onions from the Mediterranean took up residence next to American foods like corn, chili peppers, tomatoes and chocolate. Today’s Mexican cooking owes as much to the Mediterranean diet of 500 years ago as it does to the kitchens of the Maya and the Aztecs.

North America’s interest in the olive goes back for hundreds of years. Franciscan friars had been cultivating small olive groves in Mexico and when they moved north into California they brought their olive growing technology with them. Their first successful harvest of “mission olives” in North America was in San Diego during the mid-1700s. From then on the Spanish missionaries along the coast of California were in the olive business.

RUBEN MENDOZA ON CAMERA: Olive oil was important for the missionaries because it served a variety of purposes.  For one, it, of course, was part of the holy oil that was used to bless newborns.  In addition, it was also used as a lubricant.  It was used for lighting torches and candles, for maintaining lighting, heating and so forth.  And it was, of course, used for food, which was probably one of the more important functions. 


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: There are ancient sculptures at least seven-thousand years old that show Mediterranean farmers cultivating dates. Some anthropologists believe that dates were the first fruit that we cultivated.  The Arabs taught the Spanish about dates and Spanish missionaries brought them to the Americas.  Eventually the missionaries brought them to California and planted them there.

BURT WOLF: Date palms come in male and female forms, which is great for their social life but doesn’t really work that well for farmers; because it means that half of their land would be given over the male trees that don’t produce any fruit. So date growers do their pollinating by hand and have done so for thousands of years. Because of their sweetness—a dried date can have 70 percent of its weight in sugar—dates have often been thought of as nature’s candy. Today, California is a major producer of dates.

Franciscans monks also experimented with citrus orchards, planting groves of oranges, limes and lemons. During the late 1840s, Anglo settlers rediscovered the mission orchards and by the end of the 1800s, southern California was a center for citrus production, exporting oranges to the rest of The United States.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Even though West coast farmers were turning California into a second Mediterranean, most of the cooking in The United States was still under the influence of the British—very little seasoning, very few fruits or vegetables, lots of meat and potatoes. Any new foods were usually the result of fads, or what was going on in the health-food industry, or classes that were being taught in home economics.  The sad truth was that most of the food in The United States was still excruciatingly boring.

BURT WOLF: The event that began to alter gastronomy in The United States was the arrival of millions of European immigrants—particularly those from Italy. At first nutritionists from federal, state and city governments tried to convince the Italians that their traditional diet was unhealthy. Cooking classes were set up to teach the immigrants how to prepare foods in the bland, uninteresting style that had become the dominant form in American kitchens.

MARION NESTLE ON CAMERA: When they Italians came, the Americans thought they were eating peasant food, not very healthful.  They were eating all this funny bread, and they were eating all this… these funny tomatoes, and they immediately started talking to them about eating other kinds of foods, converting from olive oil to butter, for example, converting from pasta to steak. So, it's one of the great ironies of American nutrition tradition that what we now think of as one of the most healthful diets in the world was considered not to be very healthful at the time. Some of the Italians immediately converted to the American way and assimilated. But a lot of them started growing tomatoes and basil in their backyards or on their windowsills.  The nutritionists complained at the time that they just couldn't get the Italians to give up their pasta.

BURT WOLF: Fortunately, the Italians held on to their diet and in doing so saved eating in The United States. They added a little more meat to their meals and even invented spaghetti and meatballs but for the most part they ate what they had been accustomed to eating back in Italy.

HASIA DINER ON CAMERA: The Italian-American food connection is much more complicated than just Italian immigrants coming to The United States, reproducing some of their new of their traditional food ways, or the food ways of the rich people they knew back home, and elaborating them with American ingredients, particularly meat, but as well as sugar and all sorts of other new ingredients.  But the food exchange was actually much more complicated, because about one-third of all Italian immigrants who came to The United States actually went back and repatriated to, home towns or to other places in Italy.  And they brought with them American ideas about eating.  So that dishes like spaghetti and meatballs or pizza were in fact as much gifts from the Italian-American food culture back to Italy, as they were Italian dishes.  Pizza in Naples, before the giant migration to The United States, was a disk of bread, a flat bread with a bit of olive oil and some herbs on it.  But returned Americans, known as Americani in Italy, went back to places like Naples and they brought American style pizza.  It needed tomato sauce.  It needed cheese.  It needed meat on it. 

BURT WOLF: Pizza in one form or another has been part of Mediterranean cooking for thousands of years and could have come to America with a number of immigrant groups. But it didn’t. It came with the Italians. In 1905, Gennaro Lombardi from Naples opened the first pizzeria in New York City.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The ancient Romans had a type of pizza and they even served it from storefront shops. If Julius Cesar showed up in New York City today he would understand exactly what was going on and he’d probably go for the anchovies and extra cheese. At the beginning of the 20th century more and more Americanized Italian food was being made available to the general public and they loved it.


BURT WOLF: One of the more bazaar undertakings by our federal government was the introduction of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which tried to put an end to the use of alcoholic beverages in The United States. For 10 years starting in 1920, our federal state and local governments wasted millions of dollars and gave organized crime its first big chance to get organized.

However, it did have a few side benefits. A number of winemakers in California went into the cheese making business under the theory that if you could ferment grape juice you could just as easily ferment milk and today California is a major center for the production of top quality cheeses. And some are being made by the same families that made wine before prohibition.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The other positive result of prohibition was that it introduced many middle class Americans to Italian food. The story went something like this. In those days many police officers lived in the neighborhood they worked. And it was highly unlikely that a police officer, no matter how devoted he was to enforcing the law, was going to tell his uncle Tony that he couldn’t make a little home made wine or home made grappa to serve in his rooming house dining room.

BURT WOLF: Homemade wine and grappa were often available in small neighborhood Italian restaurants. Non-Italians started going to these restaurants because they knew they could get a few glasses of wine with dinner and a glass of grappa afterwards. And they ended up loving the food, too.

ELISABETH ROZIN ON CAMERA: The Italian influence on wine drinking in America I think is the best one. I like it because it is not so much a, quote, gourmet, or haute cuisine kind of tradition but one which like the Italians themselves says, "Let us enjoy ourselves.  Let us be happy. Food and drink are to be enjoyed with family, with friends, in abundance."  And this, I think, is what Italians brought to the wine drinking scene.  After all, most of the Italian wines that were originally made by immigrants were made in their basements or their back yards or their garages and were probably not the highest quality. But they were meant to be enjoyed, to bring an added dimension to the joys of the table, which, I think, the Italians have always celebrated with abundance.

BURT WOLF: When prohibition ended many of the cooks in the small Italian neighborhood restaurants and rooming house kitchens opened more elaborate restaurants in non-Italian neighborhoods in order to cater to their old customers. Italian restaurants soon became the most popular restaurants in America. Even today, if you ask people what kind of restaurant they would like to go out to, they will usually answer Italian.  

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At the end of the Second World War tens of thousands of American soldiers who had spent time in Italy and had learned to love Italian food returned to The United States. By this time there were also large Italian communities in the northeast and in San Francisco. Good Italian cooking was easily available and throughout the 1950’s Italian food became more and more popular.

HASIA DINER ON CAMERA: One of the really remarkable phenomenon of history of modern cuisine is the way in which Italian food from the end of the 19th Century onward first became universalized, so that one can find something called Italian food on, I'd say, probably every continent, with the exception, I guess, of, you know, Antarctica and, who knows, it's probably available there also, but that is the Italian migration to South America, to Australia, to Britain, universalized this food and or these foods that came to be understood as Italian and developed a kind of world recognition as food of quality, Italians in a way capitalized upon this.  They understood that this cuisine was something that set them apart from other people but in a positive way. So, most of the ways in which immigrants tend to feel stigmatized by food by social or cultural practices, and it makes them seem different and alien and not accepted acceptable to their host society, Italian food was sort of the opposite. Italians took pride in the fact that they had food that nobody else had.  And they took pride in the fact that, as they understood it, they had food that was better than other people had.

BURT WOLF: During the 1970s, there was a dramatic increase in the number of Americans traveling to Italy—Rome had become the most popular destination for American tourists. In Italy, they were learning about dishes with complex flavors, real pasta, good wine, good bread, and the use of olive oil instead of butter.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So it was Christopher Columbus who introduced Mediterranean foods to the Americas. Without him this entire hemisphere might be forced to live without pizza, or pasta, or those wonderful little olives that go into the Martinis. Today some of the most popular foods in America come from the Mediterranean. For What We Eat, I’m Burt Wolf.