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Washington Post, Oct. 8, 2018
Christopher Columbus and the potato that changed the world
By Steve Hendrix
It was a small round object sent around the planet, and it changed the
course of human history.
Call it “Spudnik.” It was a potato.
On Columbus Day, the country commemorates the grand global changes —
discoveries and destruction alike — that unfolded after Christopher
Columbus linked the New World and the Old. But some scholars take a more
granular view of what Columbus wrought. They look at the very seeds,
seedlings and tubers that began crisscrossing the oceans in what they
call the “Columbian Exchange.”
The potatoes, tomatoes, corn, peppers, cassava and other plants native
to the Americas did more than enliven the cook pots of Europe, Africa
and Asia. They transformed cultures, reshuffled politics and spawned new
economic systems that then, in a globalizing feedback loop, took root
back in the New World, as well.
It was a grand shuffling of organisms with results both great and
disastrous: Malaria-fighting quinine from the South American cinchona
tree aided European colonization throughout the tropics; the ballast
dumped in Virginia by ships picking up tobacco introduced earthworms to
the Mid-Atlantic. Diseases common in the Old World quickly devastated
the indigenous populations in the New.
“What happened after Columbus,” writes science journalist Charles Mann
in “1493,” his book on the topic, “was nothing less than the forming of
a single new world from the collision of two old worlds — three, if one
counts Africa as separate from Eurasia.”
The potato alone gets credit for population booms in parts of northern
Europe that paved the way for urbanization and, in turn, fueled the
Industrial Revolution. Tobacco had such value it was used as currency in
some places. Some American foods became staples abroad, from the tomato
in Italy and cassava in Africa to the peppers that became the paprika of
Hungary and the curries of India.
“There really was no spicy food in the world before the Columbian
Exchange,” said Nancy Qian, an economics professor at Northwestern
University who has studied how the back-and-forth flow of new foods,
animals and germs reshaped the world.
Researchers don’t how much use indigenous Americans made of the capsicum
peppers that originated in Bolivia and Brazil. But as they spread around
the globe, the zesty pods that are the ancestor of modern bell, cayenne
and jalapeño peppers allowed cooks to conceal the tastes of foods that
were still edible but going a bit off. Soon peppers would form the base
of dishes around the warmer latitudes, from Vietnamese pho to Mexican salsa.
By far the most consequential transfer of organisms, Qian said, was the
introduction of unknown pathogens into the defenseless populations of
the Americas. In the first century-and-a-half after Columbus, smallpox,
measles, whooping cough, typhus and other infectious diseases killed up
to 80 percent of native people, according to demographer Noble David
Cook. And when Europeans introduced sugar, cotton and other plantations
to the Americas, they enslaved more than 12 million Africans to work them.
On the other side of the Atlantic, fewer cataclysmic shifts occurred
when new species arrived. None had more impact than the potato, Qian said.
Before Columbus landed on Hispaniola, the European diet was a bland
affair. In many northern climes, crops were largely limited to turnips,
wheat, buckwheat and barely. Even so, when potatoes began arriving from
America, it took a while for locals to realize that the strange lumps
were, comparatively speaking, little nutritional grenades loaded with
complex carbohydrates, amino acids and vitamins.
“When [Sir Walter] Raleigh brought potatoes to the Elizabethan court,
they tried to smoke the leaves,” Qian said.
Eventually, starting with a group of monks on Spain’s Canary Islands in
the 1600s, Europeans figured out how to cultivate potatoes, which form a
nutritionally complete — albeit monotonous — diet when combined with
milk to provide vitamins A and D. The effects were dramatic, boosting
populations in Ireland, Scandinavia, Ukraine and other cold-weather
regions by up to 30 percent, according to Qian’s research. The need to
hunt declined and, as more land became productive, so did conflicts over
Frederick the Great ordered Prussian farmers to grow them, and the
potato moved to the center of European cultures from Gibraltar to Kiev.
"Let the sky rain potatoes,” Shakespeare wrote in "The Merry Wives of
Windsor.” Their portability made them ideal to transport into the
growing cities, feeding the swelling population that would be needed for
a factory labor force.
“It’s hard to imagine a food having a greater impact than the potato,”
Potatoes on a conveyor belt at Brett Jensen Farms outside Idaho Falls,
Idaho, this year. (John Roark/Idaho Post Register/AP)
Cassava, which remains the foundation of many African diets, had a
similar nutritional impact as it spread from the Americas. Sweet
potatoes, too, proved hardy in flood-prone fields. In China, some
scholars credit the sweet potato with reducing the frequent uprisings
against emperors, whom peasants tended to blame when floods destroyed
their rice crops.
Some of the most notable additions to global cuisine are nutritionally
neutral: chocolate (made from cacao beans); vanilla (which was first
processed to improve the flavor of chocolate); and the tomato, a native
of the Andes that had been transported to Mexico. There, according to
Mann, “native plant breeders radically transformed the fruits, making
them bigger, redder, and, most important, more edible." The result would
transform the cuisine of Italy and bestow upon the world pizza, ketchup
and the Bloody Mary.
“We don’t need them to survive,” Qian said. “But I don’t want to imagine
a world without tomatoes and chocolate.”
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