When Christopher Columbus first reached the Americas in 1492, he encountered a native culture completely unfamiliar to Europeans. Native foods were strange and surprising to Columbus and his crew. As two vastly different worlds converged, a new food culture developed and Columbus and early colonizers learned to adopt native foods, while simultaneously introducing European foods to the Americas.
Columbus, a self-taught scholar and voracious reader, had studied math, astronomy and cartography, but was by no means a nutritionist. He told the Spanish monarchs that he strongly believed he could reach Asia from Europe by sailing west across the Atlantic. After lobbying the Spanish court for two years, the monarchs agreed to finance his trip. They were hopeful that Columbus would discover great riches, which would fatten Spain’s coffers and help them to spread Catholicism. In doing so, Columbus opened the gateway to the New World and had a fundamental influence on the culture of food. It is an influence that we still enjoy today.
He embarked on the first of what would be four voyages, reaching the Americas on October 12, 1492. He discovered a thriving indigenous people, the Taino, who grew crops, but also fished and hunted for game. Corn, beans, squash and seafood were central components of their native diet. In one of his logs, Columbus described a meal comprised of fish and “bread which tasted exactly as if it were made of chestnuts.”
Fish was a staple in the native’s diet and wild fowl (turkey) was the main source of meat. Regional crops varied and included cacao (chocolate), corn, potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, peppers, pumpkins and peanuts. Tropical fruits enhanced their diet, such as pineapple, avocado, guava and papaya. Most of these foods were new and unfamiliar to Columbus and his crew. In Hispaniola, the first settlement in the New World, the native foods of the tribes became an important source of sustenance to the European colonizers. On subsequent voyages to the New World, Columbus brought with him European foodstuffs that would drastically change the cultural and ecological landscape of the Americas.
On Columbus’ second voyage he brought with him, wheat bread, as well as radishes, chickpeas and melons. Livestock came from Europe, including horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens. Over time, new crops were introduced to the Americas, including wheat, rice, barley, oats, coffee, sugar cane, citrus fruits and melons. The introduction of wheat was of particular significance. For thousands of years, bread had been a central part of the European diet. Wheat was not indigenous to the Americas, where maize was the native grain. In the first few decades of colonization, European settlers imported goods such as bread, wine, olive oil and certain meats. Over time, olive, lemon and orange trees were planted. Wheat and other grains were cultivated and the agricultural landscape of America was forever changed.
Not all native foods were embraced by European settlers, but they immediately became fond of many including chili peppers, cacao, papaya and pineapple. This combination of native American foods with European crops gave rise to a brand new food culture, which centuries later, we still enjoy and benefit from.