Food retains a lasting significance beyond being shovelled into our mouths. It is probably both one of the most complexly multiplicitous and fluidly hybrid forms we have. Ice cream signifies culinary consumer industrialisation. Mooncakes celebrate humanity’s relationship with lunar cycles.
Rendang represents long historical and geopolitical change in South-East Asia (give Will Harris’ poetry collection ‘Rendang’ a look). But Western, postcolonial cooking owes a lot to the Americas in particular.
Potatoes aren’t Irish. When Spanish conquistadors decimated the Inca in the 16th century (modern day Peru and Chile), they brought back potatoes. As a food, however, the Spanish hated it. It was a soiled and tumorous looking thing you wrenched out of the ground and snipped from its poisonous leafy bushels, only to be boiled and eaten blandly. Instead, the potato plant, a symbol of Spanish imperial conquest, was grown as a houseplant particularly in courts and monasteries for its luscious green leaves. Yes, a few hundred years ago, potatoes were closer to interior design than a chip butty.
However, once it spread to the rest of central Europe, potatoes began to sustain the British working class just as it had the Incan labourers in the mountainous Andes. Unsurprisingly, with similar climate, vegetation, and a civilisation that had been eating nettle soup for thousands of years, the potato found itself a newly naturalised citizen of the British Isles. In Ireland, it came to be relied on so heavily under British colonisation that a simple potato blight brought about the 1845 to 1849 Great Irish Famine, starving a million people and forcing out two million refugees across the globe. Potatoes became an integral part of the industrial revolution and later, in the form of fish and chips, a staple of British morale boosting during the two ‘world’ wars.
To the modern West, the vast majority of avocados are from the southern Californian ‘hass’ variety; dark, bumpy, and creamy in flavour. But they aren’t just fruits, they’re berries. And more than that, they’re suspected to have been widespread thousands of years ago and consumed by dinosaurs and giant sloths who ate them whole. They also come in over 500 varieties with varying textures, flavours, and sizes — in Colombia, I found one almost the size of my head that was more akin to an apple in flavour. And for almost two decades, the “green gold” has continued to be a point of contention with central American cartels in regions. The contentiousness of something so considerably trivial to Western culture should not be reduced down to the banality of an avocado toast.
Tomatoes, squash, peanuts, corn, many variants of bean – including the haricot bean more commonly known for their canned ‘Heinz baked beans’ variety – all originate in the Americas. Brought over in the cargoes of the Spanish Armada, the cultivated foods of the new world were as much treasures to contemporary civilisation as their neighbouring chests of gold, jewels, and cotton. These ingredients retain more plurality and identity than meets the eye. Yet, we still find many of these histories inconspicuously tinned and stored within the convenience of a back-kitchen pantry. Perhaps it is these foods’ assimilation into European cuisine that has driven the unconscious erasure of indigenous American histories into obscurity. The efforts and history of such ingredients deserves more appreciation than they get.