Columbus's Unknown Legacy
How food from the Americas revolutionized Europe
by David Johnson
What would Italian cooking be without the tomato? How would Irish history have been different without the potato? What would the Swiss have done without chocolate? These and such products as tobacco, corn, cassava, and most species of bean were unknown in Europe before the voyages of Columbus. As the early explorers encountered these exotic items in the Americas, they brought them to Europe and Africa, where they eventually revolutionized eating habits.
Until Columbus, the only beans known in the Old World were soybeans and some uncommon species. Other types of bean widely used today—shell, string, kidney, lima, and pea beans—were cultivated by indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Also known as manioc, this starchy root is native to the Amazon region of South America, where Indians cultivated it. As trade between Africa, Europe, and the New World blossomed, cassava gradually became a staple in parts of Africa.
The Aztecs drank a chocolate drink, which intrigued the Spanish when they arrived in Mexico around 1500. The Spaniards introduced chocolate to Europe where it quickly became an exotic luxury. In 1657 a London store began selling chocolate and started a trend. As people gathered to drink chocolate and talk, conversation clubs arose. The Cocoa Tree was the most famous. Chocolate was first manufactured in the U.S. at Milton Lower Mills outside Boston, Mass. In the 1870s the Swiss began making milk chocolate, by adding condensed milk to the formula.
What is known in the U.S. today as corn is actually maize, or was sometimes called Indian corn. In England, "corn" meant wheat, while in Scotland and Ireland it referred to oats. Indians cultivated several varieties of corn—white, yellow, red, blue, sweet corn, popcorn, and corn to make corn meal. Corn is a mixture of several types of wild grass.
From its origins among the Inca of the Andes Mountains, potato cultivation spread through wide areas of the Americas, where it was often a staple crop. The Spanish introduced it to Europe. The English first began to grow potatoes on a large scale. English settlers brought the potato with them to North America after 1600, thus reintroducing it to the New World. In Europe, the potato became a staple in many areas. Failure of the Irish potato crop in the mid-1800s prompted a massive migration to the Americas.
Early explorers reported seeing Indians smoking tobacco. By the mid-1500s, Spain and Portugal had introduced tobacco to Europe where it gradually became popular. The English began experimenting with the crop in Virginia, which remains a major tobacco producer. Tobacco use and production have circled the globe. The Middle East, Turkey, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Indonesia, and the Philippines all produce tobacco. Cuba and Puerto Rico also grow tobacco and have become important cigar manufacturers.
The Incas and the Aztecs raised tomatoes. Officially a fruit, the tomato, sometimes called the "love apple," did not catch on at once in Europe. Many people believed tomatoes were poisonous. Around 1800, the tomato was reintroduced to the Americas when Europeans brought it to the U.S., where it is the third most common vegetable crop today.