New World, New Foods

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Plants—and especially the spice plants—helped shape world history in the last five centuries. The ancient European hunger for Asian spices was an important driving force in the development of Italy, Portugal, Spain, Holland, and England into major sea powers during the Renaissance. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, John Cabot, and Magellan were looking for a new route to the Indies in order to break the monopoly of Venice and southern Arabia on the ancient trade in cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and black pepper. They failed in that quest, but succeeded in opening the “West Indies” to European exploitation. The New World was initially disappointing in its yield of sought-for spices. But vanilla and chillis quickly became popular; and its wealth of new vegetables was largely adaptable to Europe’s climate: so the common bean, corn, squashes, tomatoes, potatoes, and sweet chillis eventually became staple ingredients in the new cuisines of the Old World.