The Brown University News Bureau
Distributed October 10, 1997
Contact: Linda Mahdesian
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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