Why polenta but not corn on the cob?
July 4, 2008 8:41 AM   Subscribe

I want to a read a book about the domestication, Western discovery, spread and eventual assimilation of New World foods. I'm interested in how these crops were transported to and received by different cultures, and how certain New World foods became synonymous with particular Old World cuisines.

I'd prefer a high-level history that covered all the major crops (corn, tomatoes, squash, peppers, potatoes) and multiple cultures rather than just one in particular. It's okay if it's an academic text as long as it's not too dry.

Other good food history recommendations are also welcome (I've read "Salt" and "Cod" already).
posted by nev to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Try Food: The History of Taste. I've never read it, but several friends had it as the text for a class taught by the author (Paul Freedman, one of the top contemporary historians) and loved it.
posted by acidic at 9:10 AM on July 4, 2008

Guns, Germs, and Steel covers some of this.
posted by mkultra at 9:18 AM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ecological Imperialism by Alfred Crosby isn't quite what you're looking for but it might be worth a look. Crosby argues that European conquest of the Americas had as much to do with the plants they brought as their weapons. I know he touches on corn. It's been a few years since I read it but it is a good read.
posted by Brodiggitty at 9:23 AM on July 4, 2008

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, also by Crosby, should be worth a look as well. I had it as a textbook in a history of food class; it's a bit dry, but pretty informative.
posted by timetoevolve at 9:59 AM on July 4, 2008

Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire talks extensively about the domestication of apples, marijuana, potatoes, and tulips.

The section on apples is especially interesting. While they are originally from the Old World, apples as we know them apparently emerged in North America.
posted by sindark at 11:25 AM on July 4, 2008

Best answer: Viola, Herman J., and Carolyn Margolis. 1991. Seeds of change: a quincentennial commemoration. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
posted by gudrun at 1:26 PM on July 4, 2008

Best answer: Ah yes, and I forgot to add "Seeds of Change: Six Plants That Transformed Mankind" by Henry Hobhouse. "Seeds of Change illuminates how sugar, tea, cotton, the potato, quinine, and the cocoa plant have shaped our past."
posted by gudrun at 1:31 PM on July 4, 2008

Response by poster: Food: The History of Taste and the two Seeds of Change books (come on, guys!) look like what I'm after. Thanks!
posted by nev at 2:15 PM on July 4, 2008

I've read several of the books above and wish I could recommend more. Unfortunately, the only thing that comes to mind is the series of "Culinaria" books which go into great depth about the cuisine of different countries. The Hungary one is fantastic, and I have another one about Russia / Ukraine and some nearby areas which is nearly its equal. Some of these books I've never seen in America (such as the Hungary one), but others I've picked up in Borders for about $6 (they're normally four to five times as much - look for them in the "discount" area) - this includes the Russian, German and Italian editions. The really tell the back story of different raw foods common to each country. The Hungarian one has a lot of information about the spice paprika, which is intensely identified with the Hungarian people, despite its recent arrival from the New World. (Even Wikipedia has some interesting info about it.)

As a side note: why polenta but not corn on the cob? I've wondered that too about much of Western Europe, where corn on the cob as food doesn't seem to exist. But in the southeastern countries of Europe, corn on the cob is a favorite treat and has been for ages. It's a common thing for street vendors to sell, with butter and salt. This variety is usually boiled, but it's not rare to see families grilling the corn in its green covering too.

Even in Eastern Europe, there is some sense that corn is a very peasant-like food and not part of a higher culinary sensibility. I'm not sure why this is; possibly it is because in Europe corn is primarily thought of as animal feed. In Romania, I often ate mămăliga, which is a sort of polenta with a kind of Romanian cheese and sour cream, and many Romanians my age found this funny - it's seen as the stuff that families ate only for lack of any better food in the tough times of Ceausescu. Let's order a pizza instead! And many people I know from Sarajevo now consider corn on the cob to be a kind of "Gypsy" food (and it does seem oddly popular with the Rom.) Ironically though, even in changing times, the topping of choice for pizza in most of these countries seems to be kukorica or porumb or kukuruz or "corn."
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:21 PM on July 4, 2008

For whatever it's worth, corn-on-the-cob is considered a big treat in Japan, too. At carnivals on food row there will always be a stand which sells it.
posted by Class Goat at 5:20 PM on July 4, 2008

If you want to know more about why certain crops were adopted, you may want to look into agricultural history as well as food history. Potatoes obviously became popular in Ireland and Scotland because they produce a great deal on small plots of not very good farmland.

The Columbian Exchange has a section on what crossed west over the Atlantic (and went not only to Europe, but to Africa and Asia as well), but I don't remember if it addresses why certain crops became more popular in certain parts of the old world.
posted by jb at 6:52 PM on July 4, 2008

Response by poster: Dee: Thanks. I could read about those kind of cultural food preferences and prejudices endlessly.
posted by nev at 9:12 PM on July 4, 2008

Dee: Why polenta/mamaliga but not corn on the cob? When I was a kid my Hungarian relatives laughed at corn on the cob - "you feed pigs with that" and mamaliga ('puliszka') was identified with peasant poverty (and Romanian-ness). Later sweet corn was introduced (around 1970) and it started being sold as a snack. The grilled corn you see in Romania or Greece is usually not very sweet... feed corn, really. It's cheap, that's why poor folks prefer it. My GF, who is from Tokyo, says that the Japanese corn is "honey sweet" and calls the stuff we find in the Balkans "mamaliga on a stick."
posted by zaelic at 1:17 AM on July 5, 2008

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