You say `potato,' I say `patata'
A Harvest Gathered shows how Columbus discovered more than land
Facts about food from A Harvest Gathered: Food in the New World, the current exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library, shows the variety and range of food exchanges between the Old World and the New World, before and after Columbus.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Here are some Columbus Day items to consider, drawn from the exhibition, A Harvest Gathered: Food in the New World, at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University through Jan. 10, 1998. The display is free and open to the public:
- The potato, native to the New World, was introduced to the Old World and eventually to Asia and Africa. The same goes for the sweet potato, maize and manioc (also called cassava), as well as more exotic fare such as the avocado, papaya, pineapple, tomato, chili peppers, and cocoa.
- Today, nearly 30 percent of the world's cultivated plants came from the New World.
- From the other direction, European plants accompanied settlers on their voyages across the ocean. By 1500, Europeans were transforming the food supply in the Americas, and by the beginning of the 17th century, all of the most important European foods were being cultivated in the Americas.
- At the time of the Conquest, approximately 3,000 varieties of potatoes were being grown in the Andean region of South America, where they have been cultivated for more than four thousand years. Andean farmers also perfected the first freeze-dried method of preserving potatoes. The resulting "chuño" was easily transported and could be stored for half a dozen years without spoiling.
- For the first centuries after its introduction in Europe, the potato was little more than a curiosity, a novelty food eaten by the middle and upper segments of society; it was even considered an aphrodisiac.
- One difficulty in tracing the history of the potato's importation to the Old World arises from an early confusion of names. The word first came into English representing the sweet potato, a different plant transported from the Caribbean. The word "batata," used by the Taino Indians of Hispaniola and pronounced "patata" by the Spanish, was transformed into "potato" by the English. When the white potato from the Andes was introduced, it was also called potato, although it belongs to an entirely separate taxonomic family.
- Maize production originated in southern Mexico and had spread throughout pre-Columbian America by the time of Columbus. With the potato, it was a primary food of the Incas in Peru and an important staple in Mesoamerica and North America as well.
- Manioc, or cassava, is a major American staple in tropical areas, but is little known in the temperate zones, where it is familiar only as tapioca served for dessert. Cassava was extensively cultivated in the New World as slave provisions.
- The breadfruit still is grown as a staple in the Pacific tropics and the West Indies. The British naval vessel "Bounty," under Captain William Bligh, was transporting breadfruit plants to Jamaica when the famous mutiny led by Fletcher Christian occurred in April 1789. Bligh finally succeeded in introducing the fruit to the West Indies in January 1793.
- Believed to have originated in tropical Asia, the banana was brought to Santo Domingo from the Canary Islands by the Spaniards in 1516. It was also taken to the wet lowlands of Peru within a generation of the Conquest. Large international production and trade of the fruit began only in the late 19th century with the development of refrigerated transport.
- Amédée Frézier was a French royal military engineer under contract to the Spanish government. He was commissioned to sail to its colonies in South America to construct forts against English and Dutch attacks. His book includes descriptions of the chief towns of Chile and Peru. Frézier introduced one of the ancestors of the modern strawberry to France, where it was called the "fraise du Chili."
- In Charles de Rochefort's The History of the Caribby-Islands, published in London in 1666, the author describes catching turtles in the Cayman Islands by surprising the creatures when they are laying their eggs and turning them over onto their backs. He writes: "Being in that posture they are not able to recover themselves, but continue so till the next day that they are brought thence in Shallops to the Ships. When they are thus turned upside-down, they are observ'd to shed tears, and are heard to sigh."
- The settlers admired the skill and technique with which the natives hunted deer in the northern woodlands. In the early 1600s, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues wrote: "Nowhere have we seen stag hunting as the Indians do it. They put themselves inside the skins of the largest stags they have been able to kill, so that their heads are in those of the animals. As with a mask, they see out through the holes of the eyes. Thus dressed they can approach the deer closely without frightening them."
- Believed to be native to Ethiopia, coffee was introduced into Arabia by the 15th century and from there spread to Egypt and Turkey. By the mid-seventeenth century, it had reached most of Europe and soon thereafter was introduced to North America, although it only surpassed tea as the preferred American beverage after the latter fell out of favor following the Boston Tea Party.
- D. de Quélus's Histoire naturelle du Cacao, et du sucre, first published in Paris in 1719, includes descriptions of the cacao tree and its cultivation as well as chapters on the uses and properties of chocolate. Here the author discusses chocolate's ability to restore mental and physical well-being: "For if a person, for example, fatigued with long and hard labor, or with a violent agitation of mind, takes a good dish of chocolate, he shall perceive almost instantly, that his faintness shall cease, and his strength shall be recovered, when digestion is hardly begun."
Source: Exhibition catalog, A Harvest Gathered: Food in the New World, prepared by Daniel J. Slive, reference librarian, John Carter Brown Library.######