Teaching (and learning) Atlantic World history can be a depressing business. It requires thinking about the causes, course, and effects of some of the more horrific events in early modern history, such as the enforced migration of millions of enslaved Africans to Europe’s Atlantic colonies. Yet Atlantic World history has its more uplifting aspects, too. After all, it is a story of creation as well as destruction. Native American, European, and African people came together in cooperation as well as conflict. Exchanges among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans fundamentally transformed cultures, politics, economies, and—of most interest in this forum—food and recipes on both sides of the Atlantic. Chances are, whatever recipes you regularly eat, at least a few owe their existence to transatlantic exchange between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Beginning with Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, plants, animals, and diseases new to Native Americans arrived in the Americas and Caribbean, while plants, animals, and diseases new to Europe and Africa, similarly, made a transatlantic journey in the opposite direction. In addition to well-known commodities like sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa that traversed the Atlantic, more prosaic crops, animals, and germs crossed the Atlantic, at times accidentally. Things like pigs, cattle, horses, wheat, dandelions, rice, and smallpox travelled west; things like sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, turkeys, guinea pigs, tomatoes, and (perhaps) syphilis travelled east. Such exchange formed the roots of the “Columbian Exchange,” as historian Alfred Crosby termed the phenomenon in his seminal 1972 book of the same name.
When the ship of French explorer Samuel de Champlain ran aground in what he called Port Saint Louis in 1605, he described seeing gardens and fields filled with beans and corn, inhabited by Native Americans who met the Frenchmen in canoes filled with freshly-caught cod. Native American food and crops captivated the imagination of Europeans like Champlain. This is evident from his map of Port Saint Louis, which took care to illustrate lushly tall fields of corn as well as items of navigational interest.
What Champlain called Port Saint Louis became better known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, English colonists who arrived there described a very different place; a depopulated community so devastated by smallpox that Native Americans “were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead.” Such were the disastrous effects of the Columbian Exchange.
But in its focus on corn, Champlain’s map also carries (if you’ll excuse the pun) seeds for teaching other, at times much less devastating, aspects of the Columbian Exchange—in particular, its impact on global consumption patterns, cuisine, and recipes. Corn was a fundamental food staple of indigenous peoples in the Americas, important enough to embody religious meaning to cultures like the Aztecs, who worshipped both maize god, Centeotl, and goddess, Chicomecoatl, seen in the statue below holding two maize ears.
Corn held very different symbolic meaning across the Atlantic. There, along with tobacco, palm trees, parrots, and representations of Native American bodies, corn became an iconographic symbol of exoticism, often used in maps, paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.
But “Indian corn,” like many other plants and animals that traversed the Atlantic after contact, ended up on tables in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well as in paintings and maps. What does teaching and learning about the Columbian Exchange look like if, to take but this single example, we thought more deeply about corn? What were the long-term effects of food like corn crossing the Atlantic? What does following a plant like corn back and forth across the Atlantic tell us about changing tastes in Europe and Asia, about the ability of Native Americans and Africans to retain cultural heritage through culinary techniques and ingredient choices, and about the hybrid food practices of new, creole cultures established in the Americas and Caribbean?
Students read anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s fascinating book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985) in my class. So they are well aware of the often devastating but always transformative effects of people’s desire to consume and produce an edible commodity like sugar. But the histories of life and labor on an eighteenth-century Jamaican sugar plantation can seem, like the histories of Native Americans, French, and English in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, very far away. What would letting students look at Atlantic World history through a more personally meaningful lens do to their understanding of these faraway histories of contact and exchange? What would choosing recipes they love that are based on food that migrated transatlantically tell students not only about the past, but also about their own families and tastes? How would it illuminate the theoretical concept of creolization?
What would happen, in short, if students researched “Recipes of the Columbian Exchange”?
Recipe for the Assignment:
Choose a recipe. Although not necessary, you might want to choose one that has personal meaning to you or your tastebuds.
The only criteria to be met are that:
1) the recipe MUST be one that would not exist were it not for the Columbian Exchange and
2) it must be a recipe, with more than one ingredient
First, describe the recipe. List its ingredients, identify its name, and provide information on how it’s cooked.
Second, go into more analytical and historical detail about it. What are the environmental origins of its ingredients? Which ones are those we can trace to the Columbian Exchange? Who first made it? And where? Why is the recipe important to you? What does it tell us about the contact between peoples and the exchanges of things that characterized Atlantic World history?
Tune in tomorrow to hear students chime in on what they learned by using recipes to think about Atlantic World history.
 Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel E. Morison (new York: Knopf, 1952), 271.