Why We Eat What We Eat

As the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the New World approaches, the Admiral’s heroic stature has been diminished by revisionists who have applied late-twentieth century standards to Columbus’ late-fifteenth century conduct. Refreshingly, Sokolov demonstrates that Columbus’ stature in the history of food should be elevated. As a result of his voyages, a process of exchange of foods and cooking ideas and methods has transformed the cuisines of not only Europeans and Americans but Asians and Africans as well. Sokolov argues that belief in the existence of age-old traditional and authentic national cuisines is unfounded. All, even those of the heralded pinnacles of national cuisine, France and China, are of comparatively recent origin and reflect their exposure to American foods and cooking styles. Nor are they immutable. Nouvelle cuisine, which originated in France, is the latest in a process of evolution which has characterized French cooking during the past two centuries. It also reflects French exposure to Japanese cooking styles, testimony to the continuation of the transoceanic migration of food and cooking styles which began five centuries ago.

The author has traveled to those areas that were originally parts of the empires of Spain and Portugal—Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Colombia, northeastern Brazil, and Peru, tasting and investigating to determine the extent of cross-cultural culinary interaction between the New World and the Old. In delightful chapters on more than a score of foods, ranging from the potato and the tomato to the date and the persimmon, Sokolov informs and entertains the reader with his knowledge, humor, and obvious love of his subject. WHY WE EAT WHAT WE EAT is a welcome relief from the moralistic excesses of much recent Columbian literature.