In Honor of Columbus Day: That Yummy Columbian Exchange

Posted on October 14, 2013


When I lived in Europe, I once had the chance to stay in one of the older homes in Zurich.  The keystone above the doorway was engraved with “1402.”  “Oh, was this house built in 1402?”  I asked, impressed with its age.  “No,” came the reply, “It was renovated in 1402.”  Wow!  As I lay awake that night, I thought not of the ghosts of hundreds of past residents, but of the fact that this house was renovated a full 90 years before Columbus sailed to the New World.  In a land famed for its chocolates, this Swiss house had known a time long before any European had even heard of chocolate!

But the Columbian Exchange changed everything, broadly and deeply.  A lot of those changes are on our plates every single day.

Before Columbus, there was no chocolate in Switzerland or Belgium; there was no tomato sauce in Italy; no chili peppers in Thailand; there were no potatoes in Ireland; there was no beef in Argentina; no coffee in Colombia; no sugar cane in Cuba; no bananas in Honduras; no mangoes in Panama; no peaches in Georgia.  While the Americas knew nothing of tea or black pepper or carrots or watermelon, the Old World knew nothing of cashews, corn, pineapples, peanuts, or vanilla.

Without this Columbian Exchange of foods and other products between the Old World and the New, a lot of familiar dishes would be impossible:  beef tacos, pizza, spaghetti with tomato sauce, brownies, vanilla ice cream, Greek salads, red curry, colcannon, jambalaya, Waldorf salad or turkey sandwiches, just to name a few.  In that very Swiss house in Zurich, the owner served up a delicious but previously-inconceivable salad of tomatoes with Edam cheese.

I wouldn’t call myself a “foodie,” but I do love good food (who doesn’t?).  I know that the Columbian Exchange brought far more than culinary changes, and certainly not all of it was good; but I can scarcely imagine the comparative poverty of world cuisine before the 15th century.

It sure would be nice if people could achieve this in all things; this blend of the familiar and unfamiliar, the old and the new, in ways to bring out the best of it all.

Meanwhile, have a beef taco in honor of Columbus.