New Mexico–based food researcher and author DeWitt (The Essential Hot Spice Guide, 2013, etc.) traces the Earth-changing ramifications of the “Columbian Exchange,” which brought indigenous American foods like chili peppers, maize and turkey back to the Old World and transformed the world’s diet.
The author happily admits that he is a chili fanatic, so it is with chili peppers that he is most sympathetic and interesting. He begins the journey from the prehistoric Mayan village of Cerén, now in El Salvador, which was buried in a volcanic eruption in A.D. 590 and which revealed the oldest evidence of chili-growing and -eating outside of Mexico. Christopher Columbus remarked on many of the unfamiliar foods he observed the natives of Puerto Rico consuming with gusto—e.g., chilis, maize, sweet potatoes, pineapple and cacao bean (chocolate). He brought many of these foods back to show the astonished Spaniards. On his second voyage, he deposited many Old World foods in America that would similarly enrich (or change adversely) the American diet and enterprise, such as sugar cane, wheat, melons, fruit trees, and livestock like pigs, cattle and sheep. Both turkey and pineapple became great favorites at European courts, while the potato was scorned as “pig food,” and the tomato was suspected of being poisonous and had to wait much longer to truly be appreciated. The author doggedly pursues how Hungarian paprika was born, thanks to the Turkish traders and occupiers, and he also examines Indian curry, as chilis mixed marvelously with the ancient spices of that land. Felicitous matches occurred with the New World pairing of cacao bean and vanilla with Old World sugar and coffee, while American foods like peanuts, sweet potatoes and avocados became valuable staples in African cuisine.
An amazing journey, though the organization is meandering and digressive—frequently scattershot but ultimately satisfying.