Staples (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
STAPLES. Staple foods are those that appear most often in a given diet and provide its highest energy content. Satiety is the state sought from their consumption. A good example of an optimum staple are the loaves made from thick red sorghum porridge (Sorghum caudatum [Hack Stapf]) that the Masa in northern Cameroon consume. The flour is unsieved on purpose so that it takes longer to digest. Insufficient staples in the diet leave the consumer unsatiated; it is when staples are lacking that famines occur.
Ambiguity of the Concept
The concept of a staple can be considered in two ways: (1) as the raw food material that is most often consumed and that brings the highest energy contribution to the diet and (2) as the most common dishes made from it. In Europe, wheat is a staple. For the French, bread is the wheat staple, and for the Italians, pasta is the usual foodstuff produced from it. In Africa, sorghum is a staple, and the Masai use it to make daily loaves.
It should be mentioned that staple foods are typically accompanied by a relish providing palatability and flavor. In Chinese culture, the idea of food is illustrated by the combination of two words: fan, meaning grain (or rice), and tsai, meaning relish (Chang, p. 7). This association of a staple with a relish may be observed in many cultures.
In traditional societies, the primal cuisine consists of preparing and making palatable the staple foods according to local criteria. In Senegal, pearl millet is cooked in many ways, using various kinds of flour and semolina. It can be steamed, or cooked in water or oil. In Mexico, maize used as grain or flour permits the preparation of countless dishes.
Types of Staples
In many societies, staple foods are of plant origin. However, among the Inuit, meat and fat can be considered staples (Robbe, pp. 101, 184), and for pastoralists like the Ariaal, Turkana, and Maasai of East Africa, milk is a dietary staple, representing over 50 percent of food calories (Little et al., p. 74). Similarly, milk may be regarded as a staple commodity for Mongolian herders (Accolas and Aubin, pp. 553).
Among most hunter-gatherers, plant foods provide the highest amount of calories in the diet and, according to their seasonal availability, many species therefore assume the role of a staple. In the Central African Republic, pygmies rely on wild yams (Dioscorea spp.) for this purpose. The mongongo nut (Ricinodendron rautanenii Schinz) may be similarly regarded as a staple among the !Kung San of Botswana (Lee, p. 307).
Most fishing societies, although depending on predatory activities for their livelihood, use a carbohydrate as their stapleice (Oryza sativa L.), for instance, in southern Asia (Firth 1966, p. 3).
Since the Neolithic period, agricultural societies have produced and stored the elements of their diet. This is, for the most part, an easy matter with tubers, which remain planted in the fields and are only dug out as needed. Cereals and pulses, on the other hand, have to be protected from moisture, fungi, insects, and rodents. This is done by using granaries, some of which quite cleverly repel the pests. For instance, the horreos of northern Spain repose on pillars with an overhang, which prevents rodents from reaching the crop. In the Old World, where invasions were common, silos were dug into the ground and the opening hidden to avoid plundering (Gast and Sigaut). There are no optimal traditional solutions, however, and losses amounting to a quarter of the crop may sometimes be observed.
Among staples, one is usually prevalent. This is the case of wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) in Europe, rice in Asia, maize (Zea mays L.) in Central America, cassava (Manihot utilissima Crantz) in South America or Africa. Yams (Dioscorea spp.) are a main staple in the Pacific (Pollock) and Africa. In 2001 the production figures for the main commodities used as staple foods on a worldwide basis were as follows: maize, 604 metric tons (Mt); rice (paddy), 585 Mt; wheat, 578 Mt; potatoes, (Solanum tuberosum L.), 304 Mt; cassava, 176 Mt; barley, (Hordeum vulgare L.), 138 Mt; sweet potatoes, (Ipomoea batatas [L.] Lam) 136 Mt; sorghum, 57 Mt; and pearl millet, (Pennisetum spp.), 28 Mt (information available at the Food and Argricultural Organization, or FAO website).
Secondary staples, whose role is more seasonal, should also be mentioned. Some have been abandoned, others are still in use. For example, in Europe and the Near East, typical secondary staples include buckwheat (Fagopyrum sagittatum Gilib.), barley, true millet (Panicum miliaceum L.), and rye (Secale cereale L.), and also pulses such as broad beans (Vicia faba L.), lentils (Lens culinaris Medik.), and chick peas (Cicer arietinum L.). Common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.), which originated in America, also continue to flourish in Europe, where they often contribute protein to the diet of the poorest in society.
African secondary staples include hungry rice (Digitaria exilis [Kipp. Stapf]), finger millet (Eleusine coracana [L.] Gaertn.), cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata [L] Walp.), and bambara groundnuts (Voandzeia subterranea [L.] Thouars). Soya beans (Glycine max [L.] Merr.) are the usual secondary staple in Asia.
In many tropical areas around the world, the plantain banana (Musa paradisiaca L.), tubers like the American cocoyam (Xanthosoma spp.), and taro (Colocasia esculenta L.) are consumed as secondary staples. Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis [Parkinson] Fosberg) and jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus Lam. L.) fulfill the same role in southern Asia and Oceania. The starch made from the pith of the sago palm (Metroxylon spp.) is also popular for a similar reason among various tribes in New Guinea.
Other secondary staples, though no longer in popular or widespread use, include the following: the European chestnut (Castanea sativa Mill.), a farinaceous fruit, consumed in southern Europe (Bruneton-Governatori, Le pain de bois), and the acorns of various oaks, for example, the California white oak (Quercus virginiana Mill.), that served as an important staple food for Native Americans (Hedrick, p. 480).
Staple foods are not necessarily indigenous to the place where they are today most frequently consumed (Garine, p. 240). For instance, maize, which has spread to southern Europe, Africa, and Asia, is native to Central and South America (Estrella, p. 72; Messer, pp. 9712). Cassava, which found its way to Africa, southern Asia, and Oceania, also originated in South America. And, rather unexpectedly, potatoes and maize, which are nowadays staple foods for some Nepalese populations, are in addition of South American origin.
The routes and methods of diffusion for such staples is still a matter of discussion (Purseglove, p. 1; Chastanet, p. 265). It is likely that the way by which rice (native to southern Asia) reached the Mediterranean basin in ancient Rome will never be known, or why it only began to be cultivated in Lombardy in the sixteenth century (Barrau, p. 291), or how sorghum, native to tropical Africa, reached China (Simoons, p. 75).
The discovery of America contributed to the establishment of many new staple crops (Lewicki, p. 50) in the Old World after Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492. For instance, maize was introduced at the beginning of the sixteeenth century in Spain and especially Portugal, where it rapidly became a main staple. It also enjoyed widespread popularity in Turkey (in fact, maize was commonly known as "Turkish wheat" in Europe) and spread to Africa through the Nile Valley. It was later transported to the west coast of Africa by Spanish and Portuguese merchants.
More extensively documented was the introduction of potatoes (Solanum tuberosum L.), native to South America, to Europe around 1540 by the Spaniards. At first a medicinal product, they later became a food in Ireland, France, the Netherlands, and Germany during times of famine and a cheap source of nourishment for industrial workers in the nineteenth century (Messer, p. 191). They are now a staple in many Eastern European countries.
The slave trade contributed to the development of maize and cassava production in Africa as high-yielding crops to feed the slaves on their way to America (Bahuchet and Philippson, p. 92). Colonial America later focused on the development of staples (Firth, "Sociological Study") that were easily produced and drought-resistant, such as cassava, or easy-to-store and prepare, like rice, in order to feed cheap labor engaged in cash cropping, industrial manufacturing, and mining (Chrétien, p. 76).
In 2001 the export of staples from countries with sophisticated technology and powerful means of commercialization, as in the United States and Europe, motivates harsh competition in their sale to developing countries (Barrau, p. 300). Low price, widespread availability, easy preparation, and prestige in adopting the tastes of thriving industrialized countries are underlying factors in such food changes. The French, for instance, promoted the importation of wheat into Africa. The urban elite in many African nations developed an interest in French cuisine as a result. Today, bread is widely consumed in French-speaking Africa, and in Senegal it is even delivered by car to small villages.
In agricultural societies, the successful production of a staple formerly conferred prestige because it demonstrated technological skill and benevolent protection from supernatural powers. At harvest time, the display of vast quantities of yams still conveys success in the Trobriand Islands (Schiefenhoevel and Bell-Krannhals, p. 244) as it did seventy years ago (Malinowski, p. 171).
Staples and Cultural Superfood
As previously indicated, in most cultures one staple food is dominant. Some populations are restricted to a small number of staples, as is the case with the Masai population already mentioned. They consume their thick sorghum porridge loaves at 90 percent of their meals. Most traditional societies nonetheless have to adjust their range of staples according to the season and the habitat. This enables the Tamang, who live in the middle hills of Nepal, occupying a watershed ranging from 1,400 to 4,000 meters, to consume a wide range of basic foods: rice, maize, taros, potatoes, barley, and wheat.
It should be stressed, however, that a single staple normally becomes a key symbol in most traditional societies. This is certainly the role of rice among the Tamang and in most of India, of maize in Central America, and of wheat in Europe. Such a staple is what Jelliffe (p. 279) very adequately termed "cultural superfood" and it exists in a poulation's food supply as a "central core food," as described by Passin and Bennett (p.113).
Besides providing most caloric intake, a central staple also elicits emotional reactions in relationship to food: it is the "daily bread." Among the Masai, "to be alive" means eating the sorghum loaf. Its use is therefore strongly imbedded in their religious beliefs and mythologies.
Among the Serer of Senegal, pearl millet was considered a gift from god to prevent human starvation. Bread, made from wheat, is constantly referred to in the bible: It is a symbol of the body of Jesus Christ and also plays an important part in the Jewish Shabbat (Erlich, p. 227).
As such, staples are considered sacred foods to be handled with care and respect. The Kanaks of New Caledonia formerly carried yams in their arms like infants, since the crop grew on the land in which their ancestors are buried (Leenhardt, p. 83).
Staples are also often associated with particular deities. In Mexico, among the Aztecs, Tlaloc, one of the central deities, was linked to maize. In Greek and Roman mythology, Demeter, Mother Earth (Ceres for the Romans), is associated with agricultural products, especially wheat, symbolizing the resurrection of Persephone (or Proserpine).
Although a staple may be a revered food in a culture and is consequently to be respected, it may also elicit other responses during certain periods. For instance, in many rural societies, the harvest, marking the end of an annual cycle of food production, is an important time of celebration. Among the Koma of northern Cameroon, while sexual promiscuity is to be avoided during the maturation of staples, the threshing activities provide an opportunity for boisterous celebration, setting the stage for more permissive behavior.
Staples are additionally used in most religions as offerings to supernatural beings. In rural European societies, first-fruit offerings were formerly made with wheat, which has also been identified in Egyptian tombs dating from the dynastic period (Darby et al., p. 486). Offerings prepared with maize are presented to the deceased on All Saints Day in Mexico. Millet and sorghum are offered to deities in the form of grain, porridge, or beer in many African cultures.
Adaptability and Nutrition
Staple foods, the foodstuff to which infants are first introduced, are considered to be safe during weaning. They contribute to the development of a palate and organoleptic expectations. This can have important consequences in terms of food education and food relief programs, which might be more sucessful if they tried to provide the populations concerned with their own staples rather than those readily available or popular elsewhere.
In traditional societies, a staple is not necessarily chosen because it is the highest-yielding species with the best nutritional value. Many factors determine its selection. The elected staple might even provide little else than energy, as is the case with the false banana (Ensete ventricosum [Welw.] E. E. Cheesm.) among the Gurage of Ethiopia (Shack). In many areas of Africa, at the limit between the tropical savanna and equatorial forests, the cultivation of both maize and cassava is possible. Although the former is more nutritionally complete, it requires more work than the latter. Sometimes societies opt for the staple easiest to produce.
Since the staple, generally considered the safest food to consume, is also the first solid item offered to a child, its nutritional value may have important consequences during the weaning period. In this respect, cereal staples, which contain proteins, provide better nutrition than tubers. Relying on a single staple food in a monotonous diet amplifies its nutritional weakness. The lack of the amino acid thiamine can provoke beriberi among rice eaters, and pellagra occurs among maize consumers through an inadequate amount of tryptophane (FAO, Maize and Amino-Acid Content). Cassava contains toxic cyanide, which has to be carefully eliminated before consumption to avoid health risks. The pulse Lathyrus sativus L., which is consumed mainly by the poorest in Central India, can cause a paralytic disease called lathyrism (Kaul and Combes).
The Present Situation
Because of the significant progress in food production, distribution, and commercialization, it is possible today for anybody with financial means to consume any food, in any quantity, at any time of the year. The range has no limits. This minimizes the material importance of staple foods and the nutritional risks related to their exclusive consumption. What is the staple food of a European today? There has been a general worldwide decrease in the consumption of carbohydrates. As a result, someone living in present-day France is likely to eat only half the amount of bread an individual consumed in 1955, 63 kg per year as opposed to 122 kg. In France cereals represent only 23 percent of food energy, whereas in Italy that number is 32 percent (Collet-Ribbing and Decloitre). This difference is probably due to the maintenance of a very old style of eating in Italy, which combines an energy-rich staple like pasta with a relish of varied composition.
The globalization process has had a positive impact on food distribution worldwide by making a very wide range of foods and dishes available, but the choices made in some cultures as a consequence are not necessarily nutritionally sound. The greater consumption of white rice over brown rice and traditional staples, which contain more proteins, minerals, and vitamins, may have unfore-seen negative nutritional consequences such as protein malnutrition and beriberi (FAO, List of Foods and 1972 Food Composition Table).
Today staples retain some of their religious and symbolic value. This is the case of bread among Christians, and rice among many populations of Asia. Consuming one's traditional staple food is also psychologically satisfying. This is why a number of emblematic dishes involving a cultural superfood are still consumed on social occasions, especially by immigrants. They exist as a token of the past, a demonstration of a lasting cultural authenticity.
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Igor de Garine