The Columbian Exchange32
with Matthew Perry
chiles chocolate cocoa Columbian Columbus Day fall harvest vanilla
October is upon us, bringing with it the excitement of Halloween, harvest markets, Oktoberfest and upcoming holiday feasts. But in your haste to indulge in all these tasty events, don’t forget about the holiday that sometimes gets overlooked in all the excitement—Columbus Day.
It was not until I became a spice merchant in 2011 that I gained a new appreciation for the effects of this voyage on our kitchens, gardens, and spice cabinets. Our shelves are filled with amazing spices, blends, and flavors that were not found in the Americas prior to Christopher Columbus’ voyage. There is little doubt that the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean set off a chain of events that resulted in what is known by academics as the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange is the largest exchange of flora and fauna between continents since the Bering land bridge connected America to the rest of the world during the last ice age. This event altered our dinner tables forever.
As foodies in the U.S., we are reaping the benefits of this exchange on a daily basis without giving it much thought.
- The spicy foods of Asia and Africa were a result of chiles returning to Europe and rapidly spreading to European colonies throughout the world.
- Pigs and cows were introduced to the Americas by Columbus’s ships and quickly became a part of the American cuisine.
- Cocoa (New World), sugar and milk (Old World) had not met prior to the coming together of these worlds, but where would we be without hot chocolate?
As a spice merchant, I often talk to customers about the rapid spread of New World spices and foods as the staples of what we consider “ethnic” cuisine. These staples were popularized after the arrival of Columbus, including cocoa, chile peppers, vanilla beans, corn, potatoes, manioc, and tomatoes. Even more foods that I sometimes take for granted were introduced to the Americas from the Old World including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, sugar, bananas, and wheat (to name just a few).
Finding new trade routes to connect Spain to the Spice Islands was one of the main motivators for Columbus’ 1492 voyage. But instead of returning home with the valuable known spices of the time, like peppercorns, Columbus returned with unknown spices that became an integral part of “traditional” cuisine all over the world.
From coffee shops to bakeries and butcher shops to breweries, our taste buds are benefiting daily from this colossal exchange of flora and fauna. All of this came courtesy of a man who never even knew where he landed. So when Columbus Day arrives once again, don’t forget to celebrate the “discovery” with a wonderfully spiced breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert…and maybe even a drink or two.
Here are some great recipes to celebrate Columbus’ voyage:
- Gazpacho Salad with Avocado Dressing and Achiote Croutons
- Mikey’s Sweet Corn Biscotti
- Tarragon Sweet Potato Steak "Fries"
- Thai Spiced Gingerbread
As always, we’d love to hear your feedback about our spices and our recipes. You can review our recipes online or send your own harvest recipe creations to firstname.lastname@example.org.