Despite what we may have learned in school, most of us know now that Christopher Columbus did not, in fact, “discover” America. Aside from the fact that someone cannot be said to “discover” a place where other people already live, even from the perspective of exploration across the ocean, Viking explorer Lief Erikson beat Columbus to the punch by well over 600 years. And going even further back, while most early waves of migration to America came via the Beringian land bridge, there is evidence to support coastal migration from Asia as well, not to mention contact between South America and Polynesia. But, while he was by no means the first explorer to find the land mass we know of today as “America”, Columbus certainly had the biggest impact in terms of altering the botanical and horticultural landscape of both the Eastern and Western hemispheres. In other words, pretty much everything we take for granted today about food came about because of Columbus’ expedition. The influx of crops (and animals) that were introduced to new locales as a result of Columbus stumbling upon the Americas is today referred to as the Columbian Exchange.
When you think of food and Switzerland, what do you think of first? If you’re like a lot of people, you probably think of Swiss chocolate. How about Italy? Delicious red tomato sauce with pasta, of course. Ireland? Potatoes. Florida? Oranges. Hawaii? Pineapple. But before the Columbian Exchange, none of these foods were native to these locations. We never would have had Swiss chocolate if cacao beans hadn’t been brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors. As for tomatoes, when they were first introduced to the Italians, it was as an ornamental plant because they believed tomatoes – being related to nightshade – were poisonous.
And as for potatoes, when they were first introduced to Europe, chefs unfamiliar with the plant assumed the edible portion was the greens and stems, while the lumpy tuberous portion underground was just thrown out. Unlike tomatoes though, potato greens actually are poisonous, resulting in people becoming convinced that potatoes could cause any sickness imaginable, and poison the land where they grew to boot. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that French royalty managed to trick the populace into believing that potatoes were a heavily guarded foodstuff reserved for the royals, making the peasantry think that potatoes must be valuable and highly sought after. Thanks to this subterfuge, potatoes finally caught on as a staple crop with the general populace, the resultant crop increase playing a huge part in the population boom Europe experienced in the 1800s.
Even our very own apple pie is not as “American” as we would believe. Apples as we know them were not native to the Americas until they were introduced by European immigrants, who themselves had apples due to ancient conquest in Central and Southern Asia. Prior to the Columbian Exchange, the only apples native to the Americas were crab apples. Immigrants not only brought apples with them, and grafted them on to the existing crab apple trees, but introduced honey bees to pollinate them as well.
Whatever else you might say about Christopher Columbus, his journey across the ocean was a turning point in the history of the world. The domino effect of his travels rippled across the globe, completely changing the landscape of our world forever. Literally.