Why the Historical Journey of our Food Matters
In 1781 King Louis XVI granted Count Parmentier a large plot of land at Sablons. Parmentier turned this land into a potato patch, a future solution to the king's hunger problem with his poor. Yet, the poor refused the new crop - white people and new things- they rarely jive at first. Parmentier hired heavily armed guards to make a great show of protecting his potatoes - thus, raising their value. Stealing the valuable crop from the king seemed to have triggered the poor's interest in potatoes. Is the rest history?
When I ask at dinners, "where are potatoes from originally" rarely do I hear a unison choir: "from the Americas, of course, Chef - we appropriated them as white people’s food only in the 1800s." I mostly hear the answer, "Ireland?" When I confront the crowd with "explain Idaho potatoes then; did we (white settlers) bring potatoes here, and they adapted oh-so-well? Or did they come from here, and we actually only heard of this delicious tubular Post-Columbus? "The answer is often "we brought them here!" It's just more convenient to believe that.
If you've been following my food journey, you will notice I speak a lot about the origin of ingredients and dishes.
Of course, there's the obvious point of humbling down colonial mindsets. But do I do it to ensure everyone fully understands that tomatoes, potatoes, squashes and more are not Indigenous to Europe? Or, as the title of this blog insinuates, do I speak about the origins of food for additional reasons?
In 2018, the alt-right party Lega Nord gained tremendous power in the Italian government. Among many other terrifying campaign slogans ran: "Sì alla polenta, no al couscous" (Translation: yes to polenta, not to couscous). They even had polenta giveaways on street corners to remind Italians of their true Italian origins!
Why is this slogan bad? A few weeks before the start of the election campaign, the Pope hosted an inter-religious summit at the Vatican. To accommodate the Muslim guests, the Pope served lasagna sans pork, creating turmoil and rage in Europe. The Pope's alteration of Italian tradition translated to: “Is lasagna with no pork even lasagna anymore? How dare he? He’s diluting our traditions and values as Italians.”
And he’s the POPE - the grand guardian of tradition and values! So the polenta vs couscous rhetoric from Lega was predominantly an answer (a horrible/racist/xenophobic answer) to this event with the Pope. Another reason was the massive immigration Italy had seen from Arabic countries and, with it, the rise of shawarma & kebab restaurants in cities.
Following these political power gains in government and city halls across Italy by the right, Luca Zaia, the federal Minister of Agriculture (member of Lega), promoted these restrictions. He said that in Italy, there is "the need to protect local specialties from the growing popularity of ethnic cuisine." In this spirit, Zaia declared that he has never tasted (nor will he ever taste) a kebab.
Thus, in Trieste, couscous, kebab, or curry chicken can only be sold if accompanied by polenta and other Northern-Italian specialties like Musetto (a pork sausage - problematic to Muslims). Moreover, Bortolotti, the Mayor of Trieste (a member of Lega Nord), ordered every ethnic restaurant in the city the ultimatum to serve traditional Italian dishes or close.
To understand the problem in this particular brand of racism, let's turn back to August 1547, when Cosimo de Medici plants a field of maize in his Villa de Castello, Florence. Nobles were fascinated with discoveries from the Americas and the Far East at this time. They were yielding the power and money that allowed exploration at their whims - and of course, at the expense of the poor.
Cosimo [and others] were planting tomatoes, potatoes, American beans, and maize, but he was particularly fascinated with maize. Yes, the same maize later to be used to make the polenta they boast about in the 2018 & 2022 political campaigns and the resulting racial culinary laws.
Polenta is as Italian as the 1600s - it replaced porridge - and I have a feeling that some people were very concerned about their rights when these polenta shenanigans started! Let's clarify: the Italian food staple - porridge made from grain - was replaced by a newcomer, corn flour.
And now, this same corn flour is "threatened" by couscous, which is made of flour - the only difference? The people worried about their rights didn't have any rights, and they certainly didn't have a platform to voice their concerns on. Remember that today, we - the 99%, the poor - still hold some relative power of being heard. After all, we have access to social media, and we can voice our grievances. Regarding the idiotic plans of our modern age "kings," the 99% are documented in history via tweets, posts, movements, books, etc. How many fears and grievances of the poor farmers could come to air in 1548? Not many.
To sum this idea up, history has a weird tendency to repeat itself and, in the hands of some [white] people, to appropriate and conveniently rebrand some things [but not others] as our own culture and heritage - prior history matters not when we need to rebrand history.
Maize was brought in from what was initially perceived to be India. Until Amerigo Vespucci's ideas stuck in late 1500, the Church [a notorious establishment for its willingness to accept change...?] disagreed that the Americas were what we know they are today. Instead, the Church believed they had found another way to get to India.
In these times, the Church was the leader of science. And their working stipulation was that everything on earth, including plant species, was known to the sages. Therefore, if it exists, the bible will mention it! And thus, their system for classification was fundamentally flawed from the beginning. In this spirit, maize was initially classified as wheat. Potatoes and tomatoes were classified as apples. In French, pomme de terre [potato] translates to "apple of the earth." And in Italian, pomodoro [tomato] translates to "golden apple."
When Cosimo brought maize to Italy, he and other nobles intended it to be a diversifier/supplement/alternative to wheat. It would replace the grain that originates in the fertile crescent - Iran/Iraq/India. Yes, wheat is Arabic! So, white bread CAN be taken away from white people as a classification of "white people's food" (worrying about your rights, yet?) if we travel far back in time, like most things.
To add to the journey of Native plants and European settlers: the early Spanish colonizers of Mesoamerica were aversive to corn. A few tribes in the Mayan and the Aztec cultures practised human sacrifice and rituals that involved corn and the Gods of corn. Jesuit missionaries helped blow this out of proportion and spread the myth that 'the savages' were practicing cannibalism. The colonizers, accepting this rhetoric (to this day), correlated corn with Paganism.
The publications by Spanish Physician Francisco Hernández are an excellent example of how European settlers viewed and classified new plants they came into contact with. Hernández speaks about the husk of the tomatillo in this next instance (early Europeans confused the tomato with tomatillo often in science books), but we can directly correlate it to how the husking of corn would appear to people at that time and mindset. He thought that the splitting of the husk, revealing the fruit inside, resembled the female genitalia. And this was something he found "horrible and obscene." According to Hernández, the tomatillo had a "venereal and lascivious" appearance - this was probably the origin of one of its European names: the poma amoris, or "love apple."
The big question in light of all these historical stories and anecdotes about maize is this: What time frame in years makes food cultures stick? Why do we consider specific points in time to be regarded as a particular culture's food? Who determines what culture is and what will be embraced or forgotten? European colonialism's mindset was to bring culture to the savages - they couldn't even see indigenous agriculture as culture because their farming techniques weren't the same.
Let's discuss Caribbean food, a.k.a. West Indian food (don't get me started on the idea of West-Indi as a concept - Columbus discovered India in 1492, so...?). Most people consider Caribbean food to be oxtail with rice and peas. But according to this belief, Caribbean food dates back to when colonials brought rice and cows into the islands. What if we were to fast forward a few years to when the British Raj was "relocating people" from India to the Caribbean? So without colonial movements of people and ingredients - could it be that Caribbean food is vegetarian/pescatarian? And this is my problem with "cuisine" and "cultural food" - it does not exist on an accurate historical timeline.
So, are potatoes actually "white people's food?" Are tomatoes truly Italian, despite all the information I just shared here? And trust me, this question is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the journey of the tomato, coming into contact with the Church and then rich people. Can it possibly be that the idea of "cuisine" is still used in practice to divide and "other" us in different segments?
We are travellers now; most people see other cultures more often in 2022 than we did in the past via travel & film; immigration and refugees introduce new ideas to our old ways. We are multicultural and diverse in most metropolises. Throughout history and mainly through European colonialism - we displaced people for control and erased their heritage over centuries - food is often used as a tool for nationalism.
Look at Israel, the Arabs of Israel, and Palestinians. There's a constant fight over what the salad is called, served alongside falafel - chopped tomatoes and cucumbers dressed with tahini and a touch of lemon juice. Is it an Arabic salad? Or could it be rebranded as Israeli salad, adding to the colonial sentiment?
We already know that tomatoes in the "Old World" date back to the late 1600s, and at this point, the land that later becomes the state of Israel  is mainly settled by Palestinians and Arabs with a tiny minority of Jews. And that cucumbers were brought into this area earlier in history from the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.
The dispute on the nationality of this recipe sparked many [heated] debates when I resided in Israel. And why? It might as well be a Greek salad with no feta or olives! But nationalism and war-mongering in the hands of wealthy, influential people are always dangerous - they will use any marketing stunt in the books. No fruit is safe!
In 2022, I offended many indoctrinated Jewish people in Toronto by [being historically accurate] referring to it as Arabic salad. As a result, I've been called an Anti-Semite by members of this community - me, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces - just because of the classification of a few chopped fruit; Things, especially food, can have a shared history!
And thus, looking at the bigger picture, can we separate the "isms" of "gastronomic" racism and "real" racism? Can we create hierarchies where racism can exist separately from homophobia, xenophobia, and transphobia? For example, can a US citizen enjoy a quesadilla but hate Mexicans and simultaneously believe that "love IS love?" Or is it effortless to take that person down a hateful rabbit hole and slap a fashionable red MAGA hat on them?
Further, are we safe from these ideas in Canada?
Disclaimer: Despite being Jewish, nobody knows I am Jewish before I tell them [I am white-passing and no longer walk around with a yellow star on my coat]. My conclusions are entrenched in my [white] privilege: my culture is alive, and I can look back to many generations in history. Even despite the ethnic cleansing of my people in the 1940s, I still cannot imagine how it feels to be unable to reconstruct your family tree because your Great Aunt was enslaved and stripped of her identity, self-dignity, heritage and culture. I cannot imagine that, but I want to look forward to coping mechanisms - if not solutions - for a new future.
We live in a day and age where we have intermingled so much that maybe if we give up on these [ridiculous] ideas of national pride we can accept that we have to coexist in our humanity. If we look back to history as a learning tool: to gain insight into what happened and how to avoid it from happening again in conjunction with looking at history beyond one little point in time where a particular food or story defines our national identity - if we only can learn from history as a broader spectrum - we might be able to avoid WW3.