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Archive for February, 2011

The Columbian Exchange in Africa

Two years ago, I attended a conference organised by the British Academy on the current vogue for global history. It ended with a discussion on the pitfalls of the field and one of the panellists – a distinguished historian of African history – made the important point that much of which goes under the name of ‘global history’ is simply European or North American history spiced up with a few references to India or China. Africa, and to a lesser extent, South America and Australia tend not to get much of a look in. During the discussion, an economic historian managed to earn himself the hatred of every Africanist in the room by remarking that Africa is indeed deeply important to global history. How else, he asked, would historians write prehistory?

This is such a daft remark that I really don’t want to devote any space to disproving it, but, unfortunately, it does provide at least some explanation for the neglect of Africa in global history: most European and North American historians tend to know very little about African history, and, if they do, it’s only through the prisms of the Atlantic slave trade and imperial conquest. Food history – which is usually seen as an offshoot of global history – is as guilty in this regard.

One of the reasons for the absence of Africa in food history – other than the fact that only a very small handful of African historians write about food – is that Africa is not seen as having been part of that founding moment of food history, the Columbian Exchange. Although not directly implicated in it, Africa did certainly experience the effects of the exchange. I think that taking a closer look at the place of food in African colonial encounter – and food, as I argued here, played a similar role in Africa as it did in South America – sheds some light on the nature of the Columbian Exchange.

Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company’s first commander of its outpost in the Cape, noted carefully the seeds which he brought with him from Europe and planted in the Cape: radishes, peas, chickpeas, cabbages, lettuce, beans, watercress, wheat, melons, barley, carrots, chervil, parsley, beetroot, spinach, cauliflower, turnips, fennel, cucumbers, quince, and pumpkins. He hoped to import more fruit trees, and contemplated the chances of introducing rice. Despite planting the crops in the middle of winter and forgetting to fence them in – meaning that baboons and other animals feasted on the seedlings – the employees of the DEIC managed to supplement the bread, rice, and salted meat which they had brought with them to the Cape with fresh produce. They even had enough of a surplus to provide some passing ships with vegetables.

In terms of the Columbian Exchange, the choice of plants which Van Riebeeck and his crew brought to the Cape are interesting. They were almost identical to those which Columbus took to the Americas during his second voyage in 1494: wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, lettuce, grapevines, and sugar cane. These crops flourished selectively, though. Olives and grapevines took root only in Chile and Peru, for example. In Mexico, wine and wheat didn’t prove to be popular, but Mexica women added European salad ingredients to the small gardens they cultivated to supplement their families’ diets and to sell at market.

With around seventy years separating Columbus and Van Riebeeck’s voyages, the similarity of their crops is striking. With the sole exception of beans and pumpkins, Van Riebeeck took exclusively the crops of the Old World to the Cape. For the modern reader, the absence of potatoes and maize are particularly inexplicable. Corn and potatoes are nutritious, good sources of energy, and grow relatively well in adverse conditions. Both crops demonstrate, though, the extent to which the uptake of new foodstuffs during and after the Columbian Exchange was an uneven one.

Jeffrey Pilcher notes that ‘Although a global process, the Columbian Exchange was nevertheless negotiated at the local level.’ By this he means that the popularity of the foods taken to and from South America was determined by a range of factors, from the ecological to the cultural. Squash and beans – which were similar to more familiar foodstuffs – were quickly incorporated into European diets. In contrast, potatoes and maize were first fed to animals. Potatoes, in particular, came to be associated with famine. Potatoes were only cultivated in Britain on a large scale from the late eighteenth century onwards as a result of bad grain harvests and population growth. Economists and agriculturalists urged the government to order farmers to plant potatoes alongside wheat to ensure a food supply when the harvest failed. Thomas Malthus railed against this, arguing that potatoes fuelled unsustainable population growth which would, in the end, result in more famine. (England proved him wrong. Ireland didn’t.)

In France, the connection between potatoes and famine was broken shortly before the French Revolution. One of the vegetable’s greatest proponents, the scientist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (yes, as in pommes and potage parmentier), presented a bouquet of potato flowers to Louis XVI, who then placed one of the purple blooms on Marie Antoinette’s wig. This was a signal that potatoes were now high fashion. The leaves and flowers of the potato plant are actually highly poisonous, so who knows how French history would have turned out had Louis or Marie Antoinette, neither of them the sharpest knife in the picnic basket, decided to nibble one of Parmentier’s plants…. The various revolutionary governments maintained this enthusiasm for potatoes, which isn’t surprising considering that France, along with the rest of Europe, experienced a series of food shortages and famines during the late 1700s. The Committee of Public Safety had the flowerbeds of the Tuileries gardens ploughed and planted with potatoes in 1794.

Maize was cultivated more quickly in Europe. It was grown in Spain and Portugal by 1524, and in the form of polenta soon became part of the southern European peasant diet. It was this association with peasants that prevented maize from spreading more widely. But the crop proved to be incredibly popular outside of Europe: it was taken up rapidly throughout the Middle East, arriving in Lebanon and Syria in the 1520s where it helped spur population growth. From here it moved to northern India and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan by the seventeenth century. Seen as a cheap foodstuff ideal for feeding slaves, maize was introduced to West Africa by Portuguese traders in the 1500s and spread rapidly throughout the continent. This was not the only New World product to find favour in Africa: peanuts, chillies, and sweet potatoes were also assimilated into local cuisines.

As far as I can see, maize seems to have arrived in what is now South Africa during the eighteenth century, and given European food trends, it seems likely that potatoes were first planted then in the Cape as well. The African experience of the Exchange demonstrates the extent to which it was dependent not only on ecology and patterns of human migration, but also on cultural assumptions about race and class.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, iQue vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Other sources:

Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).

James Walvin, ‘Feeding the People: The Potato,’ in Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Redcliffe Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, revised ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Arturo Warman, Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance, trans. Nancy L. Westrate (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Tastes of Exchange

In the sixteenth century, Spanish priests working among the Mexica peoples refused to use maize wafers in communion on the grounds that only wheat, a crop imported from Europe, could represent the body of Christ.

The conquest of Latin America is central to the writing of food history. The Columbian Exchange revolutionised eating habits with the westward export of an incredible variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, and pulses, and the introduction of European and Asian crops and domesticated animals to Central and South America. But as the case of the Spanish priests suggests, the uptake of these foodstuffs was tempered by a range of cultural prejudices and assumptions about food and eating.

In his landmark text ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (1998), Jeffrey M. Pilcher writes: ‘The dinner table…became a battlefield as the wheat bread of Spanish bakers challenged the corn tamales of native women for inclusion in the Mexican national cuisine.’ I think that the idea of the dinner table as ‘battlefield’ is a useful means of understanding the dynamics and nature of the colonial encounter, but it implies that food was imposed, forcefully, on unwilling and resentful colonial subjects who had little choice but to eat the cuisine of their conquerors. Rather, I suggest, food was an aspect of a colonial cultural exchange: it was a key component in the ways in which colonisers and colonised interacted, formulated relationships, and thought about one another.

Pilcher’s writing about Mexico demonstrates this particularly well. Maize was central to the functioning of pre-Columbian Mexica society. The Mexica worshipped the Young Lord Maize Cob; women’s lives revolved around the transformation of hard corn kernels into tasty tlacoyos, polkanes, and chalupas; men not engaged in military service raised maize. ‘Pre-Columbian people respected maize and treated it with elaborate etiquette. Women carefully blew on kernels before placing them in the cooking pot to give them courage for confronting the fire. … They neglected maize at their peril; a person who saw a kernel lying on the ground and failed to pick it up might be stricken with hunger for the insult’. Babies were called ‘maize blossoms’ and young girls were ‘tender green ears’. This close connection between crop and people is well expressed in the words of a Nàhuatl folk song: ‘We eat the earth then the earth eats us.’

Unsurprisingly, the Mexica were loath to adopt wheat in the place of maize. Relinquishing maize meant more than simply eating another grain: it represented a renunciation of their identity as Mexica. For the conquistadores, many of whom were drawn from the poorest sections of Spanish society and who had experienced a catastrophic famine as a result of the failure of the Iberian wheat crop in the early 1500s, wheat represented upper-class eating habits and civilisation. In Mexico they had the opportunity to live – and eat – like lords, and to emphasise their cultural superiority through their preference for wheat over maize. Spanish efforts to introduce wheat were hampered by the fact that it is difficult to grow wheat in Mexico, and by the unwillingness of the indigenous population to eat it. But wheat was taken up to some extent in Mexico City and by a mestizo class. Wheat tortillas became symbolic of an emergent creole – later dubbed ‘Mexican’ – cuisine.

Although, as far as I know, neither the Dutch nor the British instituted a determined programme of substituting one foodstuff for another in colonial South Africa, food occupied a similar position in a range of colonial encounters. Inevitably, though, its role was different in southern Africa than in Latin America. Europeans and southern Africans ate, broadly, similar plants and animals. In Central and South America, both sides ate many things which the other wouldn’t recognise as food. Imagine the first Spanish encounter with potatoes – or the first Aztec taste of pork. In fact, Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company’s first commander of its outpost in the Cape, commented frequently in his journal about the familiarity of most of the plants and animals which he found so far away from Holland. That said, though, food retained a significance that other goods lacked.

On the one hand, this significance was due to practical reasons: Van Riebeeck and the servants of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) had to eat, and the settlement was established expressly to supply water and fresh food to passing ships. But, on the other, the consumption of particular foodstuffs was a marker of identity, and food became a means of facilitating contact between indigenous peoples and European settlers. The first communication between the employees of the DEIC and the Khoikhoi centred around food: two representatives of a Khoikhoi group were invited on board a DEIC ship and the Dutch ‘generously filled their bellies with food and drink’ in exchange for information about Khoikhoi willingness to barter cattle for DEIC goods. Later, a skipper who had gone ashore to find fresh provisions was presented with ‘4 bags of beautiful mustard leaves and sorrel and also a catch of about 750 lovely steenbras’.

Van Riebeeck’s relief at the familiarity of the edible plants and animals is almost palpable. He writes that the fish at the Cape were ‘quite as good and tasty’ as ‘any fish in the Fatherland’. Even hippopotamus meat tasted ‘like calf’. This meant that the Cape was a viable place for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables grown from European seeds for European ships, and also that European settlement was possible in this part of Africa. Contact with indigenous peoples – believed nevertheless to be ‘savages’ – was possible. Indeed, the Dutch found that the Khoikhoi were as willing to accept bread in barter as they were copper wire, tobacco, and beads. Yet the Khoikhoi were not as keen as previously believed to give away their livestock. After an initial exchange of a cow and her calf for ‘3 small plates of copper and 3 pieces of ½ fathom copper wire’, the Khoikoi were considerably less forthcoming.

Cattle were not only a major source of protein for the Khoikhoi, but represented wealth and status. Even bags of copper wire could not compensate for the loss of such valuable beasts. Van Riebeeck’s journal is an excellent source on (some) Dutch attitudes towards the Khoikhoi, but records are scanty as to Khoi opinions on the European arrivals. The Dutch scholar J.G. van Grevenbroek did record one angry Khoi outburst about these settlers in 1695 and, interestingly, it centres around food: ‘You eaters of grass and lettuce. Feed it to your oxen: personally we would rather fast. Your habits disgust and sicken us: we never belch or fart. With your foolish values, you treasure a woman’s necklace of tiny beads above sheep.’

Here, the Khoikhoi – accused by white settlers of being dirty, smelly, and uncouth – turn the tables on the Dutch colonists, describing them as uncivilised, and partly for their enthusiasm for ‘grass and lettuce’. In a society where women were responsible for gathering roots and edible plants, the Khoikhoi attached more value to the eating of meat.

Yet, the Khoikhoi ate Dutch bread, apparently with some enthusiasm, and the Dutch tried hippopotamus meat and penguins’ eggs. Their first encounters with each other occurred through the barter and eating of food, but this was no example of happy multicultural sharing: they ate that which was familiar and, most importantly, that which they thought tasted good. Yet it’s clear that cultural assumptions about particular foodstuffs were instrumental in shaping the colonial encounter.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. I, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1952).

Other sources:

Sophie Coe, America’s First Cuisines (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).

Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).

Nelson Foster and Linda Cordell (eds), Chillies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992).

Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Food in World History (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

John C. Super, Food, Conquest, and Colonisation in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988).
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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Amuse Bouche

‘Food’, observed the German author Ernst Jünger during the Nazi occupation of Paris, ‘is power’.

Earl Butz, the US Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, created the term ‘food power’ in 1974 to describe how food is used as a political weapon. Food has been implicated in international politics since at least the sixteenth century. But the production, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food is also implicated in the politics of everyday life: in the ways in which we formulate identities, relate to one another, and challenge or enforce existing social structures.

This is not a food blog, but, rather, a blog about food – and, more specifically, about food, eating, and cooking in South Africa. The world has enough recipes for red velvet cake floating around the internet. Here, I’m taking a closer look at the complex relationships between eating and identity; between cooking and politics; and between food and power.

Having recently been awarded my PhD in History and started work, I’ve been casting around for a new research topic. I’m hoping this blog will help me to find ways of writing about food.

And it’s an excuse to read recipe books. Hurrah!

So let’s begin.
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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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