Chilies to Chocolate

Nelson Foster and Linda S. Cordell have edited a series of essays, each addressing a particular culinary offering originating in the New World. The project was inspired by a symposium offered in 1988 at the California Academy of Sciences. The response to the event was unexpectedly overwhelming, and the result was CHILIES TO CHOCOLATE: FOOD THE AMERICAS GAVE THE WORLD.

Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and beans are given their place in history, from their ancient contributions to the development of agriculture, through their role in sustaining the civilizations of pre-Columbian South and Central America, to “Europe’s wary encounter” with the foods that would eventually become international staples. Cocao and vanilla receive their due as royal delicacies and, later, with the addition of sugar, as worldwide epicurean obsession. Chilies are pursued on their spicy tour through Iberia, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. Less well-known foods, rapidly gaining favor after almost 500 years of near obscurity, are also examined: amaranth, quinoa, jicama.

An epilogue provides a strong and eloquent argument for preserving the diversity of plant life native to the Americas. It also lashes out against the aggressive tactics and potentially devastating effects of commercial growing in agriculturally fragile regions and the appropriation of “folkcrops” by bioengineering firms. The defense is especially powerful given the impact of America’s native foods described in the preceding essays.