The Vintage and the Vogue: Conceiving cuisines

Robert: Hey Michael, I didn’t see you last night. Where were you?

Michael: I had a date with Nick’s House of Pizza, and it went deliciously.

Robert: That’s great to hear! You know, what we have is real. I know that because you’re not one of those tomato sauce-loathing fiends. You just can’t trust those people, Michael. 

Michael: A tomato-less pizza isn’t a pizza at all, in my book.

Robert: I’m glad we agree, but it’s interesting to me because tomatoes didn’t enter Italian cuisine until just a couple hundred years ago. They’re a fruit originating in the Americas, after all.

Michael: Then I suppose before European arrival here in the 15th century, Italians would have had no idea tomatoes existed! We did just celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, so perhaps it’s fitting to ask how the Columbian Exchange affected our conception of cuisines. 

Robert: An excellent idea, Michael. Firstly, when we talk about the Columbian Exchange, I’d like to emphasize how vastly unequal and violent it was. Some historians call it the “Columbian Extraction” because the exchange of goods, diseases and ideas benefited European powers at the expense of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Many of the consequences of this globalizing event are woven into the fabric of society: One example is how it reshaped the international culinary landscape.

For that reason, we can talk about more than just tomatoes in Italian cuisine. Other ingredients, like chilis and bell peppers, were also cultivated in the Americas before being imported, grown and incorporated into the Italian culinary canon. And that’s just ingredients; let’s not forget how techniques were affected by many cultural influences from around the Mediterranean, emphasized by its central geographic location. We love Italian food today, but it’s not actually Lindy. 

Michael: This reminds me of other signature dishes: Belgian chocolate, Napa Valley wine or Thai peanut sauce, for example. Cacao originated in Mesoamerica, grapes came from the Middle East and peanuts were first cultivated in South America. Each rose to fame in a region across an ocean from its original source.

Robert: Exactly! For that matter, I’d actually argue that most “national cuisines” aren’t Lindy at all. Especially in wealthy places like the United States, international trade and cultural exchange are inescapable, creating environments for these cuisines to develop. Moreover, it allows for cuisines to be shared across national boundaries. It cuts deeper than finding some Korean tacos in Back Bay — even something as basic as tomato sauce was developed via a complicated process of global trade and diffusion.

Michael: That’s why, on balance, cultural exchange is a net positive. Through new ideas, goods from trade and expanded social networks across the globe, humanity has progressed for millennia toward new heights. Amazingly, global networks in 1300 BCE allowed for Anatolian peasants to make bronze from British tin and Cypriot copper, each mined 3,300 km apart. But even back then, and still into the modern age, there comes a dark price. Exchange can become extraction when made uneven. Even benign legacies like national cuisines came at a cost; while they may be cherished, they are rarely Lindy. Their history should be understood lest we allow similar developments to occur in the future.

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