Tag Archives: Columbian Exchange

There and Back Again: The Trans-Atlantic Tomato

Kelly Sharp

Conrad Gesner, Historia plantarum (1561). Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.
Conrad Gesner, Historia plantarum (1561). Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.

Cold winter nights have me craving warm and filling meals and nothing pairs with a slice of my husband’s homemade bread like a bowl (or two!) of tomato soup. Used in dishes, sauces, salads, drinks, and eaten raw, thousands of cultivars of the tomato are grown worldwide to meet modern consumption demands. However, this culinary vegetable was not originally warmly received by Anglo-Americans, who didn’t think it was easily adapted to their palates.[i]

Though a “New World” cultivar, the tomato had quite a journey over time and space before becoming a consistent cultivar of antebellum American Southern cuisine. The cultivated tomato originated in Central America and was a late addition to the food supply of Mesoamericans, for no pre-Columbian archeological evidence of its cultivation has been uncovered. It first appears in written record in 1519, mentioned in Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés’s diary of his infamous conquest of Mexico. Although cultivated in Continental Europe since the 1540s, fundamentally altering foodways of the Spanish and Italians, Englishmen remained wary of the tomato for over two hundred years, growing them only for curiosity and for the beauty of the fruit. The Central American fruit’s first appearance in a published English recipe was under the name love apple and used to dress haddock “after the Spanish Way” by Hannah Glasse in the 1758 supplement to The Art of Cookery.[ii] By the 1780s, other tomato recipes appeared in British cookery manuscripts and the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica announced the tomato was “in daily use; being either boiled in soups or broths, or served up boiled as garnishes to flesh-meats.”[iii]

James Peale. Still Life: Balsam Apples and Vegetables, 1820s. Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 67.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
James Peale. Still Life: Balsam Apples and Vegetables, 1820s. Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 67.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Despite their late bloom in English cuisine, white colonists rather commonly ate tomatoes in Jamaica and probably throughout the Caribbean. In the early eighteenth century, English naturalist Henry Barham confessed that he had eaten five or six raw tomatoes at a time in Jamaica, “full of pulpy juice, and of small seeds, which you swallow with the pulp, and have something of a gravy taste.”[iv] The first known reference of the tomato in the mainland British North American colonies was by English herbalist William Salmon on his 1710 expedition of Carolina.[v] Linguistic evidence suggests the tomato was likely introduced to the American South from the Caribbean. Late seventeenth-century English, French, and German manuscripts all refer to the fruit as the love apple. and in fact the word tomato did not receive linguistic prominence in England until the mid-nineteenth century. In contrast, almost all eighteenth-century Southern references used some variation of the Spanish- and Portuguese-origin-word for tomato.[vi] Part of indigenous gardens throughout the Caribbean, tomatoes were slowly adopted into the mélange of colonial cooking.

Instructions for “Stewed Tomatoes,” “Tomato Omelet,” and “To Pickle Tomatoes” from the recipe book of Maria Poyas Gibbs. Source: Recipe book, ca. 1840. (34/702) South Carolina Historical Society
Instructions for “Stewed Tomatoes,” “Tomato Omelet,” and “To Pickle Tomatoes” from the recipe book of Maria Poyas Gibbs. Source: Recipe book, ca. 1840. (34/702) South Carolina Historical Society

Contrary to prominent Southern food historian Sam Hillard’s claims in his Hog Meat and Hoe Cake that the “tomato was little used as a vegetable in antebellum times,” tomato usage is well-documented in the early nineteenth-century American South.[vii] Among recipe manuscripts of antebellum Charlestonians, tomato cookery paralleled that of English cookery–tomatoes were stewed with other ingredients such as fish, shrimp, beef, or egg dishes. Tomatoes also stood alone–served fried, stewed, baked, or chopped. The most frequently reoccurring recipes for tomatoes, however, called for them to be preserved. For example, the receipt book of Mary Motte Alston Pringle includes three recipes for preserving tomatoes–two for pickling and one for canning–as well as a recipe for tomato catsup. In her recipe “to Preserve Tomatoes,” Pringle advocates scalding ripe tomatoes in hot water to easily remove the skins, boiling them in sugar or salt, then drying inch-thick cakes in the sun before packing the slices away in bags to hang in a dry place. This preparation suggests a later use for application in a dish calling for stewed tomatoes such as “Knuckled Veal” or “Baked Shrimp and Tomatoes.”[viii] Such recipes suggest the considerable effort required to transcend seasonality because of the centrality of tomatoes to dishes consumed in the antebellum South; women like Mary Motte Alston Pringle found the tomato a valuable component to their cuisine patterns and therefore practiced several methods to ensure its availability out of season.

If this article has got you hankering for tomatoes in your next meal, an antebellum Southerner would advise you get a move on! In her recipe book, The Carolina Housewife 1847), Sarah Rutledge notes “the art of cooking tomatoes lies mostly in cooking them enough. In whatever way prepared, they should be put on some hours before dinner.”[ix] To this twenty-first century academic, that means simmering on low in the crockpot! For my favorite out-of-season tomato soup recipe, check out this slow cooker tomato basil soup.

*****

[i] Though botanically a fruit, the tomato is legally classified, for tax purposes, as a vegetable. See the court decision of Nix V. Hedden (Supreme Court, 1893).

[ii] Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London, UK: Printed for the Author, 1758), 312.

[iii] Encylopedia Britannica (Edinburgh: A. Bell & C. Macfarquhar, 1797), vol. 17, 597-598.

[iv] Henry Barham, Hortus Americanus: containing an account of the trees, shrubs, and other vegetable productions of South-America and the West India Islands, and particularly of the island of Jamaica (written 1711) (Kingston, Jamaica: Alexander Aikman, 1794), 20.

[v] William Salmon, Botanologia, the English herbal, or, History of plants (London, UK: I. Dawkes, 1710), 1356.

[vi] Andrew Smith, The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1994), 200.

[vii] Sam Hilliard, Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860 (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 1972), 173.

[viii] Alston-Pringle-Frost papers, 1693-1990 (bulk 1780-1958). (1285.00) South Carolina Historical Society.

[ix] Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife or, House and Home: By a Lady of Charleston (Charleston, SC: W.R. Babcock & Co., 1847), 102.

Kelly K. Sharp is a PhD candidate and instructor at the University of California, Davis. A native of Encinitas, California, Kelly earned her BA in History at Willamette University and volunteered as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker with Community Housing Works in 2012-2013. Her dissertation, entitled “Farmers’ Plots to Backlot Stewpots: The Culinary Creolism of Urban Antebellum Charleston,” is a culinary history of race-making in the urban center of the South.

Kelly has experience teaching survey courses in United States history, women and gender history, and material studies at University of California, Davis. She has been active in public history, including editorial and curatorial work for the Blackville Historical Center and at the University of California, Davis, and mentorship initiatives within the Coordinating Council of Women Historians.

Outside of her academic work, she enjoys hiking, traveling, reading, and eating.

A Recipe for Teaching Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

By Zara Anishanslin 

Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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.”[1] Such were the disastrous effects of the Columbian Exchange.

MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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.

SK-A-4254-2
Jacob van Campen, Still Life with a Bowl of Corn, Artichokes, Grapes and a Parrot 1645-1650), SK-A-4254-2, Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands

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.

[1] Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel E. Morison (new York: Knopf, 1952), 271.