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The Spread of Indigenous American Foods to Europe: Background information when reading On Savage Shores

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On Savage Shores

How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe

by Caroline Dodds Pennock

On Savage Shores by Caroline Dodds  Pennock X
On Savage Shores by Caroline Dodds  Pennock
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    Jan 2023, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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The Spread of Indigenous American Foods to Europe

This article relates to On Savage Shores

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Photograph of a variety of potatoes in a market in Peru, displayed with colorful price signs One of the more flavorful influences of the New World on the Old in the age of Christopher Columbus was the impact Indigenous Americans had on the food of Europe. This occurred as part of what is popularly known as the "Columbian Exchange," or the general mixing of goods and culture (as well as disease) between Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Europeans, and it changed the world forever.

Caroline Dodds Pennock notes in her book On Savage Shores that "before contact with the Americas, Europe (and indeed the rest of the world) had no potatoes, squash, maize, or beans." The flow of crops and cuisine from the west (the Americas) to the east (Europe and beyond) occurred rapidly. Maize (corn) and potatoes in particular took root (no pun intended) in a massively successful fashion across many areas of the globe, enriching diets and staving off hunger for millions of human beings.

Within 20 years of Columbus's last voyage, maize was an established crop in northern Africa that eventually spread as far as the Ottoman Empire. Historian J.R. McNeill states that by 1800, "maize was the major grain in large parts of what is now Romania and Serbia, and was also important in Hungary, Ukraine, Italy, and southern France." It became an important crop in China and India as well. Maize, when ground down, could be used for breads and porridges, but also as animal feed. It grew most successfully in southern Africa, where climate and other environmental conditions were optimal. As McNeill notes, "Over the centuries, maize became the primary peasant food" there.

The other food staple that traveled from west to east, the wildly successful potato, was first domesticated in the South American Andes some 8,000 years ago, and the tuber was brought to Europe in the mid-1500s, after which it spread rapidly. A 2017 report in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture states that the potato is the world's largest non-cereal food crop as well as the fourth most important food crop globally (after rice, wheat and maize). Known as a high-yield crop with exceptional nutritive value, the potato was perfect for those struggling on the margins of society. As Diego Arguedas Ortiz writes in a BBC Travel article:

"For landless tenants in 17th- and 18th-Century Ireland, a single acre of land cultivated with potatoes and one milk cow was nutritionally sufficient for feeding a large family of six to eight. No cereal could claim that feat. Thus, began the centuries-long captivation among Irish and British peasants with the potato, grounded in rented earth and scarcity."

Without maize, the potato or the many other food crops that crossed the Atlantic, modern-day cuisines and dishes globally would look—and taste!—quite different.

Potato diversity in Huancayo central market in Peru
Photo by Michael Major for Crop Trust (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Filed under Nature and the Environment

Article by Peggy Kurkowski

This article relates to On Savage Shores. It first ran in the March 1, 2023 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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