American Influences

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The colonization of the Americas revolutionized the Old World of Europe in countless ways.

One of the less prominent influences that isincreasingly appreciated is the change that New World foods prompted in the eating habits of Europeans and others around the world that began in the 16th Century and continues to this day. This change came about through the gradual incorporation of a wide variety of new plant species that the Spaniards brought from these far away lands. Over the centuries, produce from the Americas enriched economies, preventedlarge scale famines in populationsdevastated by war and disease, and enriched the culinary repertoire of nations and regions with new and attractive ingredients.

At first, the residents of the Old World were indifferent to New World foods, and in some cases even found them repugnant. However, to back up their economic interests the Spaniards promoted these new products by giving them mythical and exotic associations and claiming their fertility-promoting properties. Later, public interest in scientific discoveries and geographicexplorations of even the remotest corners of the new continent focused more attention on these novel food products, many of which eventually found their way onto European tables.

Today, many plants domesticated in the Americas and brought to Europe have become staples of the traditional Western European diet. Some of the foods that were most readily adopted into the culinary and cultural traditions of the Old World are described below. But there were many more unique native American species that remained central elements of the traditional diets of local American societies. A table below describes some of these.

Among the first foods that bear mention are the chili pepper (ají) and vanilla, two widely-usedspices that the Spaniards hoped to find when they first came to “the Indies”. Other foods include potatoes, corn, tomatoes, beans and squash, all of which were essential ingredients of the pre-Columbian diet that, two centuries after the Spanish arrival in the Americas, had already become central elements of “traditional” Spanish cooking, and would later take their place in other European culinary traditions. Cacao (or cocoa) and its derivative, chocolate, as well as sunflower, pineapple, avocado, peanuts, cherimoya fruit and strawberries, are all on the extensive list of native American products that have become central to the modern diet.

In short, we could say that while the Americas were ‘discovered’ and explored by Europeans, with the passage of time the New World became the great food dispensary of the Old World.