Today one frequently reads many articles extolling the virtues of the “Mediterranean diet”. It is generally regarded as healthy, diverse, low in fat, and rich in essential vitamins and minerals. What is not often pointed out is that 500 years ago this diet consisted of essentially bland, boiled cabbage. Not that I hold anything against the humble cabbage, but it wasn’t until Columbus returned from the New World that the Mediterranean diet as we now know it began to take form. What took place after the arrival of Europeans in the western hemisphere was the largest transfer of foods in the history of mankind.
Today it is hard to imagine visiting Italy without sampling pizza or pasta with tomato sauce in Naples, Polenta in Torino, or cannellini beans in Florence. After all, Florentines are known as “mangiafagioli”, or bean-eaters. Tomatoes, which seem synonymous with Italian cooking, weren’t cultivated in Italy until the 18th century. Gazpacho didn’t find its way onto the Spanish menu until chiles arrived. This transfer of foods gave poorer populations inexpensive and easy-to-grow crops, which completely transformed what we now know as the Mediterranean diet.
Other important crops that were brought back to Europe include chocolate, vanilla, potatoes, sunflowers, peanuts, avocadoes, and hard squashes. Squash in particular was invaluable, in that the vegetables can be stored without spoilage through harsh winters when other food sources are scarce. Many historians believe that without this injection of new ingredients, the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrialization might have unfolded in very differently and the Dark Ages may have persisted throughout Europe for a longer time.
Of course, the Aztecs and Mayans already had a long history of cooking with these foodstuffs before the Europeans arrived. Perhaps it is time to praise the “New World” diet!