Will Call: In the year of 1492
On Monday, we commemorate — in that federal institutions and banks will probably be closed — the collision of the Old World and the New.
Although the Vikings had Columbus beat by several centuries, Oct. 12, 1492 was a watershed moment. For better or worse, it was the start of a globally linked humanity.
It kicked off plagues and wars of biblical proportions and a cultural genocide built on broken promises that continues to this day. It brought on an era of unchecked growth that plowed under millions of hectares of unsurpassed wilderness and fueled an unsustainable society.
It also, not so incidentally, put most of us in the position to exist today. Even folks on the other side of the world may never have been born without the cascade of events that started that day.
It seems inevitable that contact would have been made eventually, but it’s hard to know what history might have looked like, and whether we would have liked to live in that other world.
As the arts and entertainment editor, I’m going to focus on one aspect that I’m pretty sure has turned out for the better: food.
See, although Columbus was Italian, the cuisine he grew up with was tomato free. Indeed, even after encountering the new crops, it took Europeans quite a while to warm up to the idea that close relatives of deadly nightshade could even be edible. That means no tomatoes in Italy and no potatoes in Ireland. It also means no chili peppers to spice up Thai and Indian food or peanuts for Chinese cuisine. Our Halloween pumpkins and Thanksgiving turkeys come from the Americas. Moreover, so does chocolate.
Of course, it went both ways. In fact, the list from old world to new is even longer. Johnny Appleseed was technically spreading a non-native species, and Brazil was a latecomer to the coffee scene. Perhaps even more significant are horses, which had died out here, as well as a wide array of invasive species and infectious diseases. For some reason, there doesn’t seem to have been so much contamination in the other direction. Even the Colorado potato beetle, a pest worldwide, attacks mostly the aforementioned crops.
The whole cycle in both directions is known as the “Columbian Exchange,” a term coined in Alfred W. Crosby’s 1972 book of the same name, which I intend to read someday. Should you wish to learn more, that’s the term to search.
As for the upcoming holiday, consider celebrating with a dish that couldn’t have existed before 1492. There are plenty of fusions of old and new, from a BLT with avocado to ants on a log to strawberry rhubarb pie to anything with ketchup and mustard.
We could also take the opportunity to consider the folks who were here before us and are not altogether gone.
Will Grandbois will probably have that Amy Grant song “Galileo” in his head for the rest of the week. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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