An Edible History of Humanity: Pt III – Why were spices so special? Why are they still so special? Centuries ago, people discovered that spices are nutritionally superfluous; they’re durable, lightweight, and hard to obtain and only found in specific places. This led to a global trade network which made trade much more expensive. In the 5th century a.d., the Alexandra Tarrif was signed which was a roman document listing 54 things under the heading “species pertinentes ad vectical” which literally means “the kinds of things subject to duty.” One’s consumption of spices paralleled their wealth, power and generosity. By the middle age food was being smothered in spices. Some spices included: clove, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, turmeric, putchuk, spikenard, etc… “The ancient fascination with spices may seem arbitrary and strange today, but its intensity cannot be underestimated.” Using the sea route to India, Alexandrian and Roman sailors could directly access the spice markets of India’s west coast bypassing Arabia altogether to avoid Arabian and Indian middle men. By the early first century A.D., 120 Roman ships a year were sailing to India to buy spices. For the first time Europeans had become direct participants in the thriving trade network of the Indian Ocean, the hub of global commerce at the time. In a wave of expansion between 500 b.c. and 200 a.d., the spice-trade network came to encompass the entire Old World, with cinnamon and pepper from India being carried as far west as Britain and frankincense from Arabia traveling as far east as China. In the first century A.D. this trading network linked the strongest empires in Eurasia: The Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire, the Kushan Empire and the Han Dynasty. Spices were just one of the things that traveled this global network. Trading also included inventions, languages, artistic styles, social customs, religious beliefs and physical goods. Traders and geographers depended on each other: Traders need maps, mapmakers need information. Soon sprouted the spread of religious ideologies, especially Islam. Prophet Muhammad conquered much of the Arabian Peninsula and Islam spread even after his death much in part due to trade. Muslim traders traveled outward from the Arab peninsula and took their religion with them; trade spread Islam and Islam promoted trade. In 1226 Jani Beg, the khan of the Golden Horde, disapproved of the use of the port of Caffa for slave trading. His army was struck with Plague and thus came about a series of baffling dietary pronouncements as no treatment could save people. This advised fat people to stay out of sun, avoid vegetables, avoid fruit unless consumed with wine, refrain from poultry, duck meat and pigs, and “olive oil is fatal.” However, spices were recommended to offer protection from the plague, along with burning scented woods and sprinkling rosewater in homes. Christopher Columbus heard of Paolo Toscanelli’s letter describing the riches of the east (gold, silver and more) and decided to set sail to the Indies in hopes of finding gold and spices. He wanted to head to Cuba as well “rich in spices” but did not find spices there. His men did not know the correct harvesting and processing techniques and Europeans did not know what spices looked like in the wild. “That I have no knowledge of the products causes me the greatest sorrow in the world, for I see a thousand kinds of trees, each one with its own special trait, as well as a thousand kinds of herbs with their flowers; yet I know none of them,” Columbus. He continued his voyages, gradually discovering things like fruits and exotic birds, animals and wildlife, and precious metals. Columbus continued to journal his findings such as tree bark presenting nutmeg, ginger roots, aloes, and so on, while claiming his findings had medicinal value. The Americas offered all kinds of new foods like maize, potatoes, squash, chocolate, tomatoes, pineapples, vanilla, and so on… Cooking became more prevalent, especially the fusion of different cuisines like Asian and Spanish. Spices led to the wiring up of the first global trade networks: the distance they traveled was one of the reasons people prepared to pay so much. Not everyone approved of the distance. Today, similar argument is advanced by proponents of “local food” as there are environmental implications. Some countries and lands are better suited to grow certain things than others and the way you cook has an effect on carbon emissions. There are social arguments as well. Local food = more social cohesion, support local businesses, and encourage people to take more of an interest in where their food comes from and how it is grown. However, an exclusive focus on local food might harm the prospects of farmers in developing countries who grow high-value crops for export to foreign markets. It is argued that they should concentrate on growing staple foods for themselves rather than more valuable crops for wealthy foreigners. In conclusion, there is undoubtedly some scope for “relocalization” of the food supply. Food-miles debate is raising awareness from companies and consumers to pay attention to food’s environmental impact. The rich history of the spice trade reminds us that for centuries, people have appreciated exotic flavors from the other side of the world, and that meeting their needs brought into being a thriving network of commercial and cultural exchange. The voyages revealed the true geography of the planet and began a new epoch in human history, and spices provided the seeds from which Europe’s colonial empires grew.
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World – There is new evidence that the banana may have actually been the fruit that Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. If the Garden of Eden was in the Middle East, where it was believed to be, then the land is horrible for growing applies but great for growing bananas. Bananas are very difficult to breed for genetic modification and are hard to ship because they immediately start to ripen once they are cut down off of the plant on the plantation. After the Civil War, bananas were seen as a luxury in the United States. Lorenzo Baker was the 1st person to export bananas to the U.S.; he exported them from Jamaica on a whim to see if he could earn some extra money. In 1885, Baker and Andrew Preston partnered to create the world’s 1st commercial banana company. The company was Boston Fruit, now known as Chiquita. Joseph Vaccaro started Standard Fruit a few years later, known today as Dole. Central America has the perfect climate for growing bananas, but it did not have the available land or infrastructure in the 1800s. Henry Meiggs went to Chile & built a railroad; he made a deal with the government that if he built the railroad he could have the cleared land along the side to plant banana plantations. Meiggs and Preston teamed up and renamed the company United Fruit; Preston went on to create the world’s first refrigerated shipping system so the company could export bananas from Central America to the U.S. without them browning. In the 1950s, Panama disease hit and wiped out nearly all of the Gros Michel banana plantations. The banana industry and scientists rushed to find a solution; a new Panam disease resistant banana took over the market – the Cavendish. In the 1990s, the Cavendish became susceptible to the Panama disease when the industry attempted to plant it in Malaysia. Because Malaysia was home to native bananas that evolved over time, diseases evolved over time as well. Today, Panama disease and other diseases remain a big problem. Mapping of the banana genome began in 2001 in an attempt to genetically modify it to resist all serious diseases. Another common approach is to spray chemicals on the plantations, but this can be harmful to the workers and the consumers; it can also cost owners an extra $500 per acre every time the chemicals are sprayed. Potential solutions to the banana crisis include: growing organic only, giving up eating bananas in places where they cannot be grown, and genetically modifying the banana to resist disease.
In Praise of Fast food by Rachel Laudan looks the history of our food culture. She talks about how food has changed dramatically in the last few centuries. Instead of men doing manual labor in the fields all day and women working in the kitchen preparing foods all day we now have more time to spend on other things thanks to processed food. The article also addresses culinary Luddism that is the idea that we should go back to the older more natural ways. In my mind it is not that realistic, but Luddites are right that we need to know how are foods are prepared and that we need to think about foods with a modern unbiased perspective.
Tangled Routes by Deborah Barndt is in interesting read that talks tomatoes and their shift from subsistence agriculture to industrialized and globalized food production. Mayans and Aztecs were first to domesticate tomatoes, but it wasn’t until the Mexico started to really export them in the 1880’s that they became popular. The article then focuses on the differences between the production in the United States using machines and lasers to pick and sort the tomatoes and Mexico who hand picks and sorts them. The next stage is the transport, trade, and distribution to Canada and the United States. With the average shelf life of a tomato being 4.7 days the transport process has to be quick. Mexico ships 700,000 tons of tomatoes annually to the United States and Canada. Then having a high demand for tomatoes seeds are now modified so they do not contract diseases and at times the tomatoes are sprayed with ethylene to speed up the ripening process. Ethylene is poisonous for people to inhale, so the tomatoes are locked in a room for 24 hours when sprayed. It is clear that most companies like McDonalds want nice industrialized beefsteak tomatoes that will slice nicely rather than the plump delicious hand picked tomatoes.