Saturday, March 12, 2011

Of an Other Green-White-Red Revolution

The Mexican flag with its green, white and red colors as we see it today was designed in 1821 by Augustin de Iturbide, then emperor of the new nation of Mexico. It replaced the red cross of Burgundy flying over what was, until then, New Spain. The empire and Augustin were short-lived, but his flag to this day flutters proudly everywhere in Mexico. However, long before 1821 another Mexican green, white and red “revolution” took place in the rest of the world, in the culinary world to be exact.
Green is for chile. It is, by now, widely known that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed off into the unknown in search of a more direct seaway to India to obtain black pepper, which, at the time, fetched a price weighed in gold. For him to have returned with a boatload of pepper would have made him and his investors very rich. To his disappointment, all he found were chile. When he returned to Spain, to assure funding for his next voyage, he claimed to have almost reached India– he named the native inhabitants where he had landed Indians and the chilli (the Nahuatl spelling) became known as the chilli pepper. On his next voyage to what we now know was the Caribbean, the native population quickly realized he did not come with good intentions and they tried to drive out the invaders by throwing “chile bombs” over their fortress walls. These were squashes filled with smoldering dried chile and their biting smoke made it almost impossible to breathe. It was a very effective weapon, but not enough to keep out the invaders with their guns and horses. When brought to Spain, the chile seeds first took root in aristocrats’ gardens where they were treasured as a novel ornamental plant. In monasteries, they were cultivated for medicinal purposes. Soon, farmers started to grow the plants for culinary uses; they had discovered that chile spiced up their rather bland foods just as good as the black Asian pepper, which had been too expensive for them to buy. It became known as the “poor man’s pepper”. From there on, the chile went on a non-stop voyage around the globe. It spread quickly over Europe, especially in Italy, Hungary and the Balkans. Some of those countries started to breed milder varieties of chile to be eaten as a vegetable. The result we now enjoy as bell peppers. The Portuguese spice traders introduced chiles to the Ottoman Empire and India. Today, it is hard to imagine chile being absent from the cuisines of India, Thailand, China, Hungary and Spain and many others.
White is for potato On the outside, the potato is not white but it is because of its delicious white inside that it is treasured. For more than 7000 years potatoes had been a cultivated and very important food of the people in what is now Peru and Chile. Mexicans also had been eating a wild growing variety of potato. The Spanish conquers in Peru did not pay much attention to the potato when they arrived, until they noticed that the native miners were eating chuñu, a dried form of potatoes which can be stored up to 10 years and still be fit for consumption. To keep ships’ rations from spoiling on the sometimes 6-month-long voyage between the continents had always been a grave issue. Therefore, the Spanish began using chuñu on their ocean crossings. In this manner, the potato reached Spain. As with other imported plants, the potato spread over Europe first as an ornamental plant. This seems to have been a safe way to get acquainted with foods unknown. French queen Marie Antoinette adorned her hair with its purple flowers. The tubers were not considered fit for human consumption and were used only as animal food. Crop failures and wars caused frequent famines in most European countries and therefore, the poor people were encouraged by their rulers to eat potatoes. But they did not trust the ugly brown root. Eventually, they were forced. Emperess Catherine the Great of Russia ordered her subjects to eat them. In Germany, the Kaiser restored to an old trick: he planted a potato field at which he posted guards to prevent theft. This made the potatoes seem special and soon, the people began stealing the potatoes with the guards conveniently looking the other way–exactly what the Kaiser wanted! The introduction of the potato to North America was through a British governor in the Bahamas, who sent a gift box of them to a friend in the northern colonies. But once again they were met with suspicion and it took the endorsement of president Thomas Jefferson, who served them to guests at the White House, to slowly bring the potato onto the peoples’ tables. Historians are divided over how the potato reached Ireland. Some say via an English person from the colonies, others say after it had already reached England it was taken to Ireland. All agree that it was not Sir Walter Raleigh as the popular song claims. Once the potato became a popular food there was no stopping it from covering the globe. Ireland became identified with the root; in Idaho, it is the official state vegetable. Then we have French fries, gnocchi, potato pancakes aka Kartoffelpuffer, Roesti, Latkas, Boxty, Daruni, Aloo-ki Tikki, Gamjajeon– the list is long. It’s hard to imagine potatoes missing from the foods of the world.
Red is for tomato. Of all the foods from the New World, the tomato was among those considered most suspicious. Its lush, shining, intense red color spelled danger and when introduced to the Old World, it was met with the greatest resistance and suspicion. One reason could be that the smell of the tomato plant, which is nothing like what the tomato itself tastes like, is not an inviting smell to some. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the first person to be an objective observer in the New World, described how women in the markets of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) were blending tomatoes, chile and pumpkin seeds into what seems most likely to have been a salsa. Had the world paid attention then, we would not have had to wait 450 years for salsas to beat ketchup as the most popular condiment in the US.
Surprisingly though, Italy resisted the tomato as a food for the longest time, and today no other country is more emblematically associated with the tomato than Italy! When it arrived in Italy from Spain, the tomato was thought of as either poison or an aphrodisiac. It was also referred to as a “poor and defective food”. In Sicily, an island that suffered from chronic famines and welcomed anything edible, tomatoes were eventually added to their pasta water. Today, tomatoes are called pommodoro in Italian, meaning golden apple, because some of the imported varieties from the New World were yellow. Most other countries use its original name of tomato, while the French misheard the term as pommo d'amore, or love apple. Until the arrival of tomato sauce in Italy, spaghetti was coated only with a bit of cheese and picked up with fingers. The customary way to eat spaghetti was then to hold them up high over one’s face and suck them in. (Little kids learning to eat still prefer this method). This all changed with the addition of tomato sauce, it became messy to eat this way. Because of that, Italians began to use the fork, which up until then had only been used as a serving utensil but not as part of an individual table setting as we know it today. Just as with the chile and potato, can you imagine tomatoes missing from the foods of the world?

Could the color of the eagle in the Mexican flag symbolize the brown of chocolate? Leave room for dessert.

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