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.
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).
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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