A tavola!

From New World shores to Old World tables

Laura C. Johnson
October 25, 2012

It is said that since the time of the Etruscans in the 8th century BCE, the bistecca fiorentina has been served blood-red rare with olive oil and copious amounts of black pepper. And, if Marco Polo's mid-thirteenth-century travel tales are to be believed, 4,500 kilos (10,000 pounds) of black pepper was consumed per day in an unnamed city in China. Two centuries later in Florence, architect Filippo Brunelleschi revealed his love affair for peppered foods when he ate peposo fornacina made with fistfuls of black peppercorns, and ordered it for the workers on the cathedral's dome. The high price of pepper and the shortage of coveted spices, such as saffron and cardamom, are evidence that the law of supply and demand was one of the main reasons for the voyages to the Indies.


Many unexpected foods were the outcome of these voyages. Cacao, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables arrived in Europe from the Americas and inspired the birth of a new cuisine in an old land. For example, a merchant named Francesco Carletti is credited with bringing cacao back to Florence from a voyage to South America. We should tip our cups to him when we spoon the thick, hot chocolate during Florence's chilly winters at the famed cafés in piazza della Repubblica. Chocolate sauce on roasted wild boar is a traditional Christmas recipe from the Renaissance. Bitter chocolate tempers the gaminess of wild meats.


The tomato was an important part of the diet in Mexico, known as New Spain to sixteenth-century Spanish explorers, and greatly influenced first Spanish cuisine, and later Italian. Europeans, especially the English, initially thought tomatoes were poisonous, probably because they were served on pewter plates, which caused death when the high acid of the fruit mixed with the lead from the plate. It is said that Florentines were the first Italians to consider the tomato's fruit edible and that fried tomatoes were an especially popular delicacy. One can hardly imagine Italy without the tomato known as the golden apple-pomo d'oro. Would pizza margherita still be called such without its Italian-flag-red tomato sauce? It is equally hard to visualize the landscape of Italy without the now all-too-familiar tomato plants.


The exhibition New Frontier at Palazzo Pitti includes a landscape from the late sixteenth century entitled the Native American Village of Secoton. The well-groomed, dirt-paved streets and small, permanent homes with rows of corn in this sophisticated reproduction of the New Found Land of Virginia look more like a twenty-first-century subdivision, not one established just 65 years after Amerigo Vespucci had lent his name to this new frontier of America. The scene clearly shows that the native peoples were well established with advanced systems of agriculture about 20 years before the first pilgrims from England arrived, and that corn was a main crop. Corn (maize) spread throughout Europe and was found in northern Africa, western China, and the East Indies by 1575.

However this New World food, probably from Mexico, has yet to fully take its place on the Italian dinner table. Italians are attached to wheat-based staples just as the Native Americans were to corn-based foods. Mussolini tried to wean Italy from its reliance on the breadbasket of North Africa. He campaigned for more polenta, made from cornmeal, instead of wheat-based pastas and breads. It went over with Italian mammas about as well as his attempt to promote fast-food-type lunches instead of the longer, sit-down midday meals.


While the movie Tea with Mussolini was a cute title for the 1999 movie filmed in Tuscany, this tea party was about as likely to have happened as a dinner with an Indian wearing a feather bonnet headdress at the first Thanksgiving in America in 1621. Painters of the history of the American West normally took advantage of the romantic image of the lone Indian greeting English settlers while wearing feathers. The problem with these paintings, literally, is that many artists inaccurately showed all tribes wearing them. The first Thanksgiving took place in the Northeast: feather bonnet headdresses were worn on the Plains.


The mandatory turkey for Thanksgiving dinner is a New World food. In the early 1500s, wild turkeys were brought from Mexico to Europe. After domesticating them in Europe, the English colonists then brought turkeys back with them to the New World, but they arrived farther east on the Atlantic seaboard in Massachusetts, about 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from Mexico, where the turkey had begun its travels. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote of his preference for the wild turkey as the nation's national bird, not the bald eagle. Ironically, according to American laws, bald eagle feathers cannot be exported, so the stereotypical Indian headdresses made for foreign consumers often contained turkey feathers.


I will always remember my first American Thanksgiving in Florence in 1998. We were a group of four with enough food for 40: one Irishman, who brought potatoes; an Italian who needed wheat- or gluten-free pasta; and an Englishman who was still afraid to eat tomatoes. As for me, I wanted turkey and knew enough to pre-order it from the Mercato Centrale, but I did not realize I would be doing the feather-plucking at home! That day I settled for something more Italian: the Made-in-Florence honey (or sugar)-and-milk mix known as gelato. I chose to believe not in its reputed Chinese origin but in the story of an original invention by a talented gastronome in the Boboli Gardens.


Hand-colored illustration of Theodor de Bry's engraved illustration of the Native American Village of Secoton, which accompanied the text of Thomas Hariot's 1588 book, entitled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.


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