Harvests of the New World

November 2007

Once upon a time, a long time ago, when I was a little boy, I was lying on my bed with a coloring book propped on the pillow. It was a delightful publication with a Thanksgiving Harvest theme. On the center pages I found the outline of a cornucopia –- a horn of plenty -- burgeoning with all kinds of fruits of the soil. I had so much fun filling in the drawing with varied colors of the fruits and vegetables with my black 12 color Crayola box – those were the days before the 64 crayon cartons featuring colors such "Macaroni & Cheese" and "Purple Mountain Majesty."

Harvest time has always been a satisfying season for me. I see in each fruit and vegetable the fulfillment of their growth from spring seedlings to autumn maturity. My grandchildren get a hint of this view of life when they make their annual visit to "Pumpkinville" - a field of haystacks and long vines that harbor big orange jack o' lanterns. 

Over the years my wife Ruth and I have traveled through the Spanish countryside during the autumn months. Some villages were laden with the aroma of wine during their Vendimia wine festival celebration. Near Plasencia in Castilla-Leon we visited with our friend Cecilio at the mill of La Chinata Pimentón de la Vera. He introduced us to farmers who were slowly curing their freshly picked peppers in wooden smoke houses in preparation for the mill. 

How easy it is to imagine timeless Spain where the local harvest traditions have been going on for thousands of years. But of course it is not the case. Radical changes occurred in 1492: not only the final triumph of the 700 year struggle with the Moors on the plains of Granada, but, most notably, Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. It was a watershed for Spain and its cuisine: the introduction of new foods from the Americas heralded a revolution in how Spaniards farmed, cooked and enjoyed food.

Think a moment. Can you imagine a piping hot mug of thick chocolate a la taza without the chocolate? What about that cooking favorite tomate frito, if there were no tomatoes? Then there is tortilla Española with nary a potato! It sounds absurd, but that is the way it was before Ferdinand and Isabella sent Christopher Columbus to the New World. Much of what we think of as Spanish gastronomy did not exist 600 years ago.

Ferdinand and Isabella sent Columbus in search of rare spices. Seasonings such as black pepper were so precious that the monarchs hoped his voyage would discover a new route to the Spice Islands. Why were spices so crucial? Remember they did not have side by side refrigerators providing an unlimited supply of ice cubes to tumble into their glasses of Coke. They had no refrigeration at all. Pepper, along with sea salt, was a priceless preservative for their meats. 

When Columbus returned from the New World, he headed straight to the Royal Court, which at the time was encamped at the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe deep in the mountains of western Spain. (Fernando and Isabel had an itinerant court which was often on the move in order to reinforce relationships across various parts of their realm. Before Guadalupe they had been in Sevilla). There in the Mudejar monastery nestled in a mountain valley he presented his Patrons with chili peppers, among other treasures. The king and queen were delighted. 

Without delay the local Franciscan brothers sowed the seeds in the monastery gardens – less than a day's journey from where smoked paprika is grown today! Thanks to the horticultural interest of Columbus, from that time forward the people on both continents enjoyed food that was flavored and preserved by smoked paprika.

Many other culinary treasures that the first explorers brought back to Spain were far more lasting than silver and gold. They changed the way of life for all of Europe. The list of foodstuffs is amazing: vanilla, chocolate, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, squash, corn, avocado, pineapples, and peppers of all sorts. Where would we be without them?

The Spaniards introduced many of their own treasures to America. Can you imagine a time when there were no citrus fruits in California, Texas and Florida? Imagine the Wild West without horses? All of these were brought to the New World by the explorers and missionaries. Since Spaniards have always loved good food, Christopher Columbus made sure some Ibérico pigs were included on the first voyage. After all, how could a Spaniard properly dine without his pata negra ham?

When you sit down at your Thanksgiving table, surrounded by family and other loved ones, don't forget our fore bearers who contributed to the food before you -- a Cornucopia of many civilizations. 

Our family wishes yours a warm and loving Thanksgiving Day.