New World Cuisine

From the exhibition:
New World Cuisine

Museum of International Folk Art

New World Foods

Columbus set in motion the world’s first major food revolution by introducing from the New World to the Old corn, beans, squash, potato, tomato, chili, manioc, vanilla, chocolate, bell peppers, and more. From them evolved the national cuisines of Europe, as we enjoy them today. Imagine, for example, could there be pasta without tomato sauce, shepherd’s pie without potato topping, goulash without paprika?

In return, the Spanish introduced foods of the Old World to the New, including wheat, creating one of the great southwest gustatory divides. This winter crop’s extended growing season allowed for the flour tortilla to eventually rival the traditional corn tortilla. You can tell which side of tradition a Santa Fe restaurant is on by their tortillas.

In the mid-1500s, Cortez brought coriander, mustard, parsley, rosemary, sesame, anise, fennel, lavender, oregano, cumin and other herbs and spices. And then came cattle, sheep, and goats, which lead to more meat consumption, the production of milk and cheese. The versatile quesadilla is a fusion of Old and New World foods, now a staple of Southwest cuisine.

The Spanish cultivated the chili pepper they found growing wild and used by indigenous people. Chocolate, on the other hand, most likely came up the Turquoise Trail to make an early appearance in Chaco Canyon. However the two ingredients made their debuts, legends surrounding New World cuisine involve innovative nuns of the 17th century. Cooking in their large, well-equipped, communal kitchens, they hastened the blending of cuisines. Bless them for combining the New World’s chocolate, peanuts, and chili with Old World cinnamon to make mole poblano, a sauce similar to one developed by the Mayans and delicious over most anything today.

In his book Why We Eat What We Eat, Raymond Sokolov writes, “Of all the New World foods [the tomato] has traveled farther and wider and changed the face of more cuisines.” The tomato, central to southwestern cuisine for centuries, also has affected cuisines from Mediterranean to China. Think how gazpacho, once a “white” soup traditionally made in Spain with bread, grapes, almonds, vinegar, and olive oil came to be more often seen as “red,” not only in Spain but also in the New World even before Mary Randolph’s 1796 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. It was all because of tomatoes.

Running a close second to the cuisine-changing tomato is New World chili. Discovered by Columbus and introduced to India and China by traders, chili quickly became a part of established, sophisticated cuisines infused with many spices and flavors, making some Indian and Sichuan dishes bitingly hot, as measured on today’s Scoville scale. Though a fortuitous discovery for many, the pepper Columbus found and gave a misleading name was not the then-coveted black variety he sought; consequently, confusion sometimes persists between New World peppers and black peppercorns from Asia, at least until eaten.

Photo by Kitty Leaken



Credit: Photo Kitty Leaken

Note: Representative image at left is often cropped for display purposes. Downloaded high-resolution images are not cropped.