History on our plates

Colour in our cuisine

History on our plates

History is intriguing. Especially so when we realise how every humble fruit, vegetable and spice that we use on a regular basis has a historical background to it. Lakshmi Palecanda ploughs into the past todig out interesting information about their rolein the shaping of world history.

You go to the market to shop for your staple groceries, thinking, “Ho-hum! This is going to be so boring!” When you buy the basics — tomato, potato, onions and bananas — or replenish the spices — pepper, cloves, nutmeg — do you realise that they may have a historical background that is every bit as astounding as the Kohinoor diamond? Well, read on, and discover how our humble vegetables, spices and fruits are intertwined in the fabric of world history!

I have a friend who used to be addicted to eating cloves. Well, back in the day, she would have no problem getting an audience with the Chinese Emperor. No kidding! In China, as far as 226 BC, people had to chew the florets before an audience with the Emperor so that their breath wouldn’t smell bad. The spice clove was native to Molucca Islands, Indonesia, and one of the first in history to be traded.

To say that cloves were one of the most precious spices in the 16th and 17th centuries would be an understatement. In 1522, Magellan’s ship returned to Spain loaded with cloves and nutmeg. (Magellan himself did not, he was killed in the Philippines) At the time, clove was worth more than its weight in gold. (And my friend would’ve had to be very rich to keep up her addiction.)

What happened next was the same as what happened with most other spices — it became enmeshed in colonial trade monopolies. In 1605, the Dutch found their way to the Moluccas, and got into the spice trade. Their trading company, Netherlands United East India Company or Voc (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch), established a monopoly by destroying clove trees anywhere outside their control.

 This didn’t go down too well locally, where it was tradition to plant a clove tree upon the birth of a child. The life of the child was tied psychologically to the tree, and when the tree was damaged, it boded ill for the child. This local ‘heathen’ sentiment was totally ignored by the more ‘civilised’ colonialists. Anybody caught growing, stealing or possessing cloves without authorisation faced the death penalty. The Voc also limited supply to keep prices high: only 800 – 1,000 tonnes were transported every year. The rest of the harvest was either burnt or dumped in the sea. 

What happened next was an anticlimax. In the midst of this brutal stranglehold, a Frenchman stole some clove seedlings in 1770 and took them to France, then the Seychelles Islands and, eventually, Zanzibar. This ended the monopoly, and Zanzibar is today the world’s largest producer of the spice. A clove tree named Afo, reputed to be the mother of those seedlings, still stands on the hills of an island called Ternate, one of Indonesia’s famed Spice Islands. (I’m sure my friend would love to visit it one day.)Certain discoveries change the world in unexpected ways. Columbus went looking for India, but found the West Indies and the Americas. The Spanish conquistadors went looking for gold, and found... the potato!

Goodness unearthed

Yes, the discovery of the Americas introduced many new plant species to the Old World, in a process called the Columbian Exchange. (In return, the Native Americans got colonists, smallpox and high heels. A fair exchange, indeed!) Corn and potato were among the most important of these. However, in those times, people were afraid to eat the potato (which is the fifth most important crop in the world today), and they had cause to be. Wild potatoes have solanine and tomatine which are toxic to human beings.Potatoes originated in the mountainous regions of the Andes in South America.
The first Spaniards in the region, led by Francisco Pizarro in 1532 (one of the guys after the gold) noticed American Indians eating these strange, round objects and copied them. However, back on the home continent of Europe, nobody would touch them. Some thought it was an aphrodisiac; to the others, it was the cause of leprosy and fever. In Prussia, following a famine in 1744, King Frederick the Great had to order the peasantry to eat the tubers. In England, 18th century farmers boycotted the potato, linking it to an attempt to spread Roman Catholicism.

But some people realised that it might provide abundant, reasonably healthy food for the peasants (not for the aristocrats, mind you. They got all the certified good stuff.) In France, a pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier devoted his life to promoting the potato. As luck could have it, Marie Antoinette liked the five-lobed purple flowers of the potato plant so much that she put them in her hair. Her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole, and the French aristocracy, which loved to ape fashions, walked around with potato plants on their clothes for a short while.

All this was part of an attempt to persuade French farmers to plant potatoes, and French citizens to eat them. In those days, famines occurred regularly in small pockets of European countrysides, ironically in farming areas. This is where the potato plant proved tremendously useful, since it was easy to grow, yielded bountiful harvests and was nutritious, so even country people could feed themselves. Thus, it became the solution to the problem of famines. By the end of the 18th century, it had become a staple crop. 

The potato impacted history again in the mid-1800s, this time in a negative way. In 1845, potato blight, a fungal disease, destroyed the entire crop in Ireland. It occurred again in 1846 and 1847 (1847 is still referred to as Black ’47), causing a famine. The strange thing was that Irish farmers produced other food crops like corn, oats and barley, but these were regarded as cash crops that belonged to the landlords. The peasants subsisted solely on potatoes (adult men ate 60 a day, women 45, and children 25), and were devastated by the blight.

 With no food to eat, and no money to pay rent to their landlords, the Irish peasants suddenly found themselves thrown off their lands by heartless landlords. In order to escape death by starvation, over a million people eventually emigrated to Canada and the United States. An article with the headline of ‘Ireland in America’ in The New York Times on April 2, 1852 encapsulated the situation, giving numbers to the migration: At one time, in just four days, 12,000 people landed in America for the first time... and these were just the official numbers. This led to the formation, and eventually the rise of the Irish community in the United States of America. (President John F Kennedy was Irish-Catholic.)

Here, in India, we love to eat potatoes in various dishes, but the universal favourite has to be potato chips. This, too, has a fascinating history. In the 1700s, French-fried potatoes, potatoes cut thick and fried, were popular in France. They were enjoyed so much by Thomas Jefferson when he served as ambassador to that country that he brought the recipe back home to the US. In the summer of 1853, a Native American chef named George Crum was working in an upscale resort called Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, New York. French-fried potatoes was on the menu, and it was while serving these that chips happened. 

A diner complained that the French fries were too thick and sent the dish back twice. Exasperated, Crum decided to get his own back by slicing the potato extremely thin and frying it too crisp to be eaten with a fork. The plan backfired: the guest fell in love with the thin, browned potato chips. Crum’s potato chips became a staple on the menu as Saratoga Chips. As years went by, various other innovations like the mechanised potato peeler, wax paper bag etc. happened, leading to potato chips as we have them today. You might want to remember Crum the next time you tear open a bag of potato chips!

Truth about tomatoes

Now, enter Tomato, the other ‘evil’ edible. The tomato has confounded people for ages. Seriously, what is it — a fruit, a vegetable, or a berry? Well, it is all three. It is a berry because of the structure of the fruit it bears; it is a fruit as it grows out of a flower; and it is a vegetable, because we use it in salads and main courses, not desserts. Whatever you want to call it, it is one more of the plants which crossed over on the Colombian Exchange. Native to Mexico, and brought back to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century, it was initially known as ‘pomi de oro’, meaning the golden fruit because of its yellow colour, and thought of as both poisonous and an aphrodisiac. 

By late 1700s, most Europeans feared the tomato, calling it the ‘poison apple’:  aristocrats who ate them got sick and died! Actually, the poison lay not in the tomato, but in the plate. Wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Since tomatoes are highly acidic, they would leach lead from the plates when placed in them, causing lead poisoning. However, the peasants appeared immune — all they had were wooden tableware! (This is perhaps the only case in history where being poor was an advantage!) In spite of these odds, the tomato was quickly accepted by all in Southern Europe, and became a favourite. 

On a related note, all of us love pizza, don’t we? However, there can be no pizza without the tomato sauce, right? Pizza itself was invented around Naples in the late 1880s. One restaurateur in Naples made a pizza with the three colours of the new Italian flag — red, white and green — to celebrate the visit of Queen Margarite, the first Italian ruler of Italy after Napoleon conquered Italy. The red came from the tomato sauce, the white was the mozzarella cheese, and the green was the basil topping. This was the first Pizza Margarite, and is still the best loved pizza in Italy.

The great banana benefit

However, of all the foods we take for granted, the humble and ubiquitous banana is the one with the most chequered history. It is one of the oldest species of plants cultivated and used since ancient times, even predating the cultivation of rice. Some even say that it is the banana, and not the apple, that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. The earliest origins of banana cultivation have been pegged to about 8000 BC in the Kuk Valley of Papua New Guinea. It thrived in other parts of the world like India, China and Africa, and finally made it to the North American continent in 1516, when a Spanish missionary named Friar Tomas de Berlanga brought it to the Dominican Republic. And though the fruits were popular in the tropics of the Old World, they were virtually unknown in the USA. This is where the banana’s history gets colourful.

When the banana plant arrived in the New World, the fruits were red or green in colour, and had to be cooked before eating. In 1836, a man named Jean Francois Poujot discovered a mutant in his plantation, which yielded sweet yellow fruit. These quickly became popular in the local market. In 1870, Lorenzo Dow Baker, a sea captain, saw the peculiar yellow fruit in the market, and bought some unripe bunches of the fruit. He then set sail for America, and sold them in the fruit markets of New Jersey.

The banana was formally introduced to the American public at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There, a local grocer sold peeled individual bananas wrapped neatly in tin foil for the princely sum of ten cents, an hour’s wage. It is said that more people went to see the banana trees and eat the foil-covered bananas than went to see a new invention, called the telephone, by Alexander Graham Bell. 

The banana became popular, but was too expensive for the common man. (It was eaten with a knife and fork.) The answer was mass production and marketing, and Lorenzo Baker made this happen. He teamed up with a Bostonian entrepreneur named Preston and started the Boston Fruit Company, to market bananas. Later, a railroad entrepreneur named Minor Keith who owned thousands of acres in Costa Rica and grew the fruit to feed his workers, joined them, creating the company, United Fruit. They sold the fruit under the Chiquita brand name. The other company was the Standard Fruit & Steamship Company of New Orleans (today, part of Dole). Minor Keith was a highly ambitious man, who would do anything to advance his own interests. He even married the daughter of the Costa Rican president, and eventually became known as ‘The Uncrowned King of Central America’. In order to feed a mass-market, United Fruit bought huge swathes of Central America, so much so that it became known as ‘the Octopus’. The company installed its own puppets as heads of state throughout Latin America and exploited local workers (colonisation in a new avatar).

 In some countries, it paid no taxes at all for decades. Whenever local authorities threatened to take action, it simply threatened to pull out and thereby ruin the economy. In fact, the term ‘Banana Republic’ came to stand for corrupt countries controlled by banana companies. (The name was coined by renowned short story writer, O’Henry, in his short story, Cabbages and Kings.

The writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, wrote his book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which he talks of a massacre of a thousand unarmed striking workers and their families in the town square in Cienaga by the military: these were banana plantation workers who were demanding such ‘perks’ as toilet facilities at plantations.

In the 1950s, democratically-elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz tried to force United Fruit to sell its fallow land back to the government with the idea of distributing it to landless farmers. In a far-reaching conspiracy, a public relations man from the company wrote a report implying that Guatemala was becoming communist. ‘News’ began to be circulated that Russia was training revolutionaries to take Latin America. The result was that the Guatemalan president was ousted in a coup with the help of the CIA, and a dictator sympathetic to the company’s cause was installed. 

In the 1960s, more than one-third the global market on banana sales belonged to Chiquita, but by the end of the 1990s, Dole had caught up. Now, Chiquita has merged with another company, Ffykes of Ireland, and is to take the number one spot again. Thankfully, the earlier practices of exploitation and monopolisation are no longer practiced.

Well, now you know the history of a few of the foods you eat. Now, aren’t you curious about the rest?

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