Food history: Social change & tortilla technology

On the weblog Edible Geography Nicola Twilley presents a talk by and profile of Rachel Laudan, a historian of food, at Fueling Mexico City: A Grain Revolution:

All cities require fuel: oil, gas, electricity, and so on. What I want to talk about today is the energy that fuels the people in the cities—food. Without food energy, a city is nothing. A city is nothing without the people who work and play and enjoy or suffer through the city, and they require food.

I want to talk in four short bursts. The first is about what all cities need in the way of food. The second is the reason why Mexico City had a particularly hard time with food. The third describes a revolution in the food of Mexico City that has taken place in the twenty years since I first saw it. And the fourth is about the kind of trade-offs that had to be made to undergo that revolution in food.

On her own blog Rachel Laudan writes about why the Columbian exchange was a non-event in culinary history:

Ok, what do I mean by culinary history?  Culinary (from the Latin culina, kitchen) history traces the history of the (guess) the kitchen or more generally, the techniques used to turn plants and animals into food.

Thesis. 1492 (or the Columbian Exchange) is a complete non-event in culinary history.

Why?  Well, the kitchens and techniques that went from Old World to New were imposed on top of older Mesoamerican techniques.  The result was a two-tier cuisine.  The Spanish kitchen for those of Spanish ancestry, the Mexican kitchen for everyone else.

Or water mills, copper pots, bench stoves, bread ovens for the first lot, grindstones, pottery, three stones round the hearth to balance a griddle, for the latter.  Result–a thin layer of Catholic European Cuisine spread over the local cuisines.

More important what about the kitchens and techniques that went from the New World to the Old.  Zilch, nada. …

Consider three culinary techniques that the Old World could have picked up.

1.  Treating maize with an alkali.  The culinary advantage.  You can make a flexible flatbread with this.  Preferred by most people to the porridges and gruels that were the common way of eating maize in the Old World, maize not treated with alkali not lending itself to flat or raised bread preparations.

2. Making a vegetable puree sauce.  Eventually the Old World figured out how to do this with tomatoes.  But not with chiles, not as thickeners, and not with tomatillos which give a lovely acid taste and great thickening power.  Very little use of rehydrated dried chile in this capacity. Where are the tomatillos in Europe?  Where are the chiles used as the thickeners and flavorers of sauces (instead of simply as  a piquant taste).

3.  Turning cacti/agave into really useful foods.  The paddle cactus is perfect as a green vegetable and grows in arid regions.  The agave yields a drinkable liquid in arid regions and can be turned into a syrup or an alcohol without much trouble.  Yet although these now grow all over the arid regions of Eurasia they are used at most as animal food.

But not a one.  So far as I know, no cooks were brought over from the New World, no systematic exploitation of processing methods from that part of the world.

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