of Food Globalization
Cambridge University Press, 2007, 384 pp., $27
Demonstrators angrily protesting against globalization have often concentrated on what can be called the McDonald’s Travesty, the supposedly premeditated gastronomic trashing of sublime national cuisine cultures by tasteless American mega-corporate predators. But José Bové—to recall the most infamous of the McDonald’s Travesty warriors—and his angry associates would be better served by spending their time reading the delightful work of Kenneth Kiple. They might then begin to understand that the migration of food and recipes—as well as resistance to it—has been going on for thousands of years, certainly well before the era of refrigerated transport and modern American capitalism.
In the aptly titled A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization, Kiple traces the origins of virtually all foods and their remarkable dispersion through the centuries and through different countries. A Movable Feast contains any number of fascinating stories under chapters with titles like “Promiscuous Plants of the Northern Fertile Crescent”, “Faith and Foodstuffs” and “Producing Plenty in Paradise.” Kiple takes the reader from the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago in what we now call the Neolithic Revolution to the genetically modified (and fast) foods of the 21st century. As he does, it becomes strikingly obvious that most foodstuffs—plants as well as animals—appear to have had extremely peripatetic and interesting individual histories, particularly over the last several hundred years.
Much of the material for A Movable Feast is based on an earlier two-volume work called The Cambridge World History of Food (2000), which Kiple co-edited. A Moveable Feast is not only more compact than its encyclopedic predecessor, but, as the name suggests, it gives the storyline of food globalization. While World History is more of a botany-based reference text, A Movable Feast examines the human social dimension with more avidity. It takes up the influence of monks and missionaries and explorers and traders, right through to today’s biologists, who have given us genetically modified crops and myriad other advances in biotechnology.
Spuds on the Move
Consider, for example, the humble white potato, Solanum tuberosum, the fourth most important of the world’s food crops today, even if much criticized for its modern incarnation as a large serving of fries.
The white potato was probably domesticated in the neighborhood of Lake Titicaca in the Andes about 5,000 years ago. By the time the Pizarro expedition reached Peru in the 1530s, this potato was widely cultivated throughout the Andean region and known for its health-giving properties. The Aymara people even calculated time by how long it took to boil a potato.
As Kiple relates, Pizarro is believed to have taken the white potato back to Spain in 1539, and it soon became part of the basic supplies for Spanish vessels operating off South America’s Pacific coast. By the 1570s, what was now known as the Spanish potato was being fed to hospital patients in Seville, and had also extended its roots into the gardens of Italy. But the expansion of the potato’s popularity in Europe was stalled temporarily by a Swiss botanist named Caspar Bautin. Bautin deplored Solanum tuberosum for causing wind and leprosy. He also accused the poor little spud of being a sexual stimulant and hence the work of the devil. (Could this be true? Could Lucifer in fact be behind cheese fries?)
Meanwhile, adding to the thickening plot (Vichyssoise?), Sir Francis Drake was at more or less the same time introducing England to the white potato, supposedly from Virginia. He had in fact picked up his white potato at Cartagena, but no matter: The Virginia potato became the English potato, promptly adopted by the Irish with gusto and called, of course, the Irish potato. It was under this name that it was returned to its original Hemispheric home, specifically, to Boston.
Back in Europe, the potato was literally as well as figuratively gaining ground, but slowly. Whether because of its nomenclature problem or the rantings of Caspar Bautin, the potato’s acceptance in other parts of Europe was grudging. Indeed, it was only during the famines caused by the Thirty Years War (1618–48) that the potato and its calories became popular in Russia, Germany and, after a while longer, the Netherlands.
Later, in 18th-century France, Marie Antoinette wore potato flowers in her hair to emphasise the vegetable’s virtues for hungry peasants. “Let them eat potato” was the gist of it. As Kiple tells the story, the flower-in-the-hair approach proved less persuasive than the tactics of a scientist, August Parmentier. Having been a prisoner of the Prussians, he knew the worth of a potato in warding off starvation. He therefore deliberately put a field of potatoes under armed guard until ready for transplanting, then withdrew the guards. As he had guessed, the peasants had become convinced the vegetable must be valuable, so they stole them to transplant into their own gardens. The storming of the Bastille it was not, but it may have been an even more important operation, all things considered. Vive la pomme de terre! Certainly the French have made the best of it, and what’s a few calories among friends?
One of Kiple’s main themes is that advances and changes in diet often mean the deterioration of the health of the people consuming and relying on a new source of food. Our hunter-gatherer forbears, while enduring extremely arduous lives foraging for food, frequently had better diets than those who subsequently followed a more sedentary agricultural existence and often survived on one basic crop. The monotony of such a diet and the closeness of living conditions made them vulnerable to all sorts of new diseases and plagues, some directly related to crop failures and some having to do with malnutrition.
The former was at play in the catastrophe visited upon the potato eaters of Ireland. Dreary as their meals may have been, Kiple points out that the Irish population almost doubled between 1800 and 1845 thanks to the qualities of the New World vegetable, this despite the occasional potato crop failure. But it was the fungal disease Phytophthora infestans, unwittingly imported from the Low Countries, that really caused havoc and widespread famine. In 1845, Ireland lost 40 percent of its potato crop and 90 percent the following year, accelerating one of the world’s great population dispersions, with many an Irish immigrant following the potato to Boston and beyond.
A mural on a brick wall in Belfast, Ireland, depicting the Irish Potato Famine [credit: Michael St. Maur Sheil/Corbis]
Tip Your Cup
The social dimension of A Movable Feast is prominent in Kiple’s investigation of the world of beverages, from wine to whiskey to soft drinks. But it’s hard to get past the significance of tea, given that it is now the most consumed beverage on the planet after water. (Tea is, however, still second to coffee in international trade because so much of it is grown and consumed locally.)
The exact origins of what is known in various dialects as chai or cha or tay are shrouded in legend, partly thanks to a Han Emperor reigning around 260 BCE, who ordered all written records destroyed in order to further his narcissistic determination that Chinese history should begin with him. The most common legend is that tea drinking began after a leaf from a wild tea plant (thirty to forty feet in height) fell into the cup of boiling water prepared for the emperor Chen Nung about 5,000 years ago. (This is about as likely a story as Isaac Newton and his fortuitous falling apple, but a story is a story.)
Tea became increasingly popular by the 6th or 7th centuries, helped by the rise of Buddhism. It was a comforting substitute for alcohol, which was forbidden to the Buddhist monks, and its caffeine-induced energy helped them through the long hours of mandated meditation.
Tea was taken to Japan via a monk, thence to Java. It then spread to Afghanistan, where it has remained the national drink, and was adopted by the Ottoman Empire, where it dramatically accelerated the decline of wine drinking in the Muslim world. (Omar Khayyam, eat your heart out.) The Portuguese took tea to Europe in 1580, only to have the tea trade taken over first by the Dutch and then the English.
Tea’s debut in England was extremely successful despite the government taxes levied upon it. The English, who liked their tea at hotter temperatures than the Chinese, quickly learned to add a handle to the cup. The combined coffee-tea houses of England were also responsible for another legacy, what has come to be known as tipping a waiter or waitress. Patrons would place a small coin in a box marked T.I.P., which stood for “to insure promptness.” And here I, who have been drinking tea and tipping waiters all my life, did not know that until Kiple pointed it out.
As the taxes on tea were lowered in England, it became cheaper than coffee. Meanwhile, taxes on gin and beer went up to stop widespread public inebriation. As a result, tea took over as the drink of the English working classes. This was in contrast to the Latin countries of Spain and Italy, where tea remained a privilege of the upper classes and coffee was for the masses.
Thanks to its initial Dutch heritage, tea became all the rage in a young New York City, with tea gardens enjoying great popularity by the end of the 17th century. Due to the continuing English predilection for taxation, however, tea drinking became a victim of revolutionary fervor in the wake of the Boston Tea Party, the War of Independence and the British blockade during the War of 1812. At the same time, Caribbean and Brazilian coffee prices were lower than ever before. By 1830, according to Kiple, “tea weaning was complete” in the United States, but that didn’t stop Americans from subsequently inventing both iced tea and, in 1908, the tea bag. Vengeance indeed.
Changes in drinking habits sometimes made a huge difference in social and economic life. In Colonial America, plantation denizens, including children, often drank copious amounts of locally made weak beer because the water was not safe to drink. When tea made its way in the latter part of the 17th century to places like Pennsbury, William Penn’s estate on the Delaware River, productivity increased dramatically. The locals barely knew what hit them. The spread of tea drinking, in turn, probably encouraged the arts of whiskey making. That, of course, really hit them.
There are countless fascinating food and drink details in A Movable Feast. But Kiple’s story of globalization is particularly interesting not for its incidentals but for the connections it makes between food-ways and what we would generally describe as real history. Take, for example, what he has to say about the fusion of the food of the Old and New Worlds from the time of the journeys of Christopher Columbus.
In 1492, the only land animal in the Antilles, for example, was the hutia, a large rodent. When Columbus arrived the following year with the 17 ships of his second journey, they were, according to Kiple, “veritable Noah’s Arks, disgorging horses, pigs, dogs, cattle, sheep and goats.” And they were all set to flourish in a hemisphere that harbored few natural enemies.
The only New World animal to achieve quick and eager European acceptance was the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), domesticated in central Mexico about 2,000 years ago. The turkey was an instant hit in Spain. By 1511, every ship leaving for the New World was ordered to bring back ten turkeys. They soon spread out to the wealthy tables of Europe to impress guests along with the native birds like peacocks, herons and cranes. The extent of the bird’s rapid popularity generated much confusion about its origins. Many Europeans assumed it to be a native of India or Africa, or to have been brought to Europe by Turkish merchants, hence the name. This means that Americans call their Thanksgiving centerpiece, a bird of their own native soil, a name mistakenly given it by confused Europeans.
American vegetables, however, had the greater impact on the diets and health of Europeans. Apart from the potato, maize in particular but also sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, American beans and tomatoes all helped keep the poor of Europe alive. Chili peppers proved less popular, only taking hold in the livelier cuisines of Italy, the Balkans and Turkey.
The overall result of the improved caloric intake was a big rise in European population, leading unfortunately to an oft-repeated historic cycle. According to Kiple: “Swelling populations soon created food scarcity once again so that population increases were increasingly paid for in the currency of human misery.” That in turn led to mass waves of immigration to the New World, source of so much of the food that had become truly revolutionary in demographic and migratory terms.
New World foods also had an impact on Africa as American plants strayed away from fields around slave barracoons. Manioc, the tuber that originated from the Americas, is today tropical Africa’s most important crop. Peanuts, squashes, American yams, papayas and sweet potatoes also prospered. The difference with Europe was that so many of the growing African population that benefited from a new diet were transplanted involuntarily back to the New World as slaves. Had it not been for the dietary boost from the New World, the social dynamics that led to most African slavery would not have existed so conveniently.
Nor was Asia left out. Maize became the poor man’s food in China because it could be propagated where wheat and rice could not. The Chinese were also delighted to discover that peanuts preserved soil fertility. But the most remarkable success was that of sweet potatoes. By the 1920s most of the peasants in the warmer South of the country ate sweet potato every day. China now grows about 80 percent of the world’s crop, just as India became the world’s largest peanut producer after they were introduced from Brazil.
So what, if anything, is different about food globalization in the 20th and 21st centuries? After all, it’s not as if fast food was never known before. Kiple makes the point that fried kibbeh, sausages, small pizzas, olive nuts and flat breads have long been sold on the streets of Middle Eastern and North African cities. Marco Polo reported barbecued meat and deep fried delicacies in the markets of China. Pushcart vendors sold French fries on the streets of Paris before the middle of the 19th century, well before they were joined by hamburgers, themselves of German origin, in the onslaught of American-style fast food.
It is true, however, that the pace of change has accelerated even more dramatically, particularly with the industrialization of food production, and also that, in the West at least, as Kiple writes, “diets are no longer tied to regional food production and, consequently, regional cuisines are fast disappearing.” Kiple argues that “such food homogenization means that for the first time in human history, political will alone can eliminate global inequalities in the kinds and quantities of food available.”
Somehow, that confident assertion about the future of food globalization doesn’t seem quite as convincing as Kiple’s detailed explanation of its past. But we can mince more words later. For the time being, be a good lad and please pass the sushi.