Embark on a culinary exploration of the New World

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2008

Several years ago I began a tabletop publication aimed at educating my customers on the foods they enjoyed eating. It was called "About The Menu" and contained fun facts explaining the origins of certain foods, foods that were uncommon in Juneau eateries, the history of specific customs, and so on. It was great fun to research and I believe a few people even enjoyed the content. During my research I found to my surprise and delight that many of my favorite items to cook with originated in the New World (North America, Central America, also known as Mesoamerica, and South America).

At the time I had never thought about the fact that there were some foods that were not dispersed all over the world, foods that were landlocked and not available in Europe, Asia or elsewhere. The New-World origins of some items were shocking to me considering these foods' prominent roles in specific cuisines. For example, I was surprised to discover that tomatoes originated in Peru, potatoes in South America and chilies and other peppers (including bell peppers) in Mesoamerica. I thought about Italian cuisine without tomatoes, Ireland without potatoes and all of Asia without chili peppers and was amazed to learn that only since Columbus have these items been spreading.

The more I learned about food origins the more I noticed my menus taking on New World roots. Unfortunately several of these menus never came to be but they did make me notice the ultimate recognition of home grown foods: Thanksgiving dinner.

Most people don't know this but each year we celebrate the foods of the Americas. Thanksgiving is not only a celebration of survival and a giving of thanks but also a celebration of indigenous foods. Roasted turkey with maple glaze, sweet potato pie with pecans and allspice, cranberry sauce, corn on the cob, succotash (lima beans, tomatoes and corn), boiled or roasted peanuts and blueberry cobbler with a side of fresh strawberries, does this sound familiar? Every single item listed is of New World origin. We have maple, cranberries, pecans and blueberries from North America; sweet potatoes, peanuts, strawberries and tomatoes from South America; and corn, turkey and allspice from Mesoamerica. This knowledge has not only led me to appreciate the foods of Thanksgiving a little more, but has also allowed me to understand, accept and embrace the traditional menus of the season.

The New World has provided an abundance of lively foods for the world to explore, from culinary staples such as avocados to new foods such as guarana from the Amazon (a plant that produces berries with seeds that contain 2.5 times the caffeine of a coffee bean). But the most exciting foods have to be vanilla and chocolate.

Vanilla, native to Mexico, is a thin winding vine that produces a "bean" at each point where the vine flowers. Unfortunately the vine can only be pollinated by a specific Mexican bee which dies outside of Mexico. The good news is that the vanilla vine is hermaphroditic and can be manually pollinated (hence the high price tag).

Chocolate, in my eyes, is the culinary star of the New World. Chocolate is derived from the beans of the cacao tree, which is native to tropical South America. The beans must be fermented and shelled, leaving the cacao nib, which is in turn ground and liquefied to bring us chocolate. Originally drunk with cayenne pepper as a bitter steeped drink, chocolate has evolved into the decadent sweet we know and love today.

The above is by no means a comprehensive list of foods that originated in the New World but it does give you an idea of how rich a land we live in and the unique culinary contributions we can tally as our own. So next time you bake chocolate chip cookies with extra chips and vanilla or have a turkey sandwich with corn chips, remember where they came from and enjoy your culinary heritage.

Enjoy, Juneau!

• Brady Deal is a MA with Sysco Foods and can be reached at deal.brady@sea.sysco.com

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