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Culture in The Columbian Exchange

American Transplants and European Traditions

What we now consider to be the "traditional" cuisines of Europe are heavily flavored with the products of the Columbian Exchange. Before 1492, the Italians—hard as it is to believe—ate no tomatoes. The Irish ate no potatoes, the Spanish no peppers, the Swiss no chocolate. For tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and cocoa—like corn, cassava, peanuts, avocados, strawberries, pineapple, vanilla, and tobacco—are species native to the Western Hemisphere, brought back to Europe for the first time as the literal fruits of colonial success.

The rapid integration of American foodstuffs into European recipes was only the most obvious of the cultural adaptations brought on by the Columbian Exchange. On both sides of the Atlantic, people proved remarkably willing to reorganize entire social structures to make better use of previously unknown plants and animals.

Potatoes did not exist in Europe before 1492. They first appeared in Ireland sometime in the late sixteenth century, and very quickly the starchy tubers—high in calories, easy to cultivate, capable of rot-free storage in the ground—became the island's staple crop. The increased nutrition provided by potatoes allowed Ireland's population to explode, from 1 million in the middle of the seventeenth century to 8 million 200 years later. When a devastating potato blight struck the crop in the 1840s, the result was mass starvation and an exodus of millions of desperate emigrants. The terrible consequences of the Great Famine revealed, in tragic clarity, the incredible extent to which the potato—a favorite food of the Incas—had become an indispensable part of Irish culture and society.

European Horses and Comanche Culture

American Indians integrated European species into their socio-cultural traditions just as easily as vice versa. Horses were as alien to America in 1492 as potatoes were to Ireland. It did not take long, following horses' introduction to the New World by Spanish conquistadors, for Indians to appreciate the strange beasts' value in transportation, hunting, and warfare. The horse transformed Indian societies, and even created new Indian nations: The Comanche emerged as a distinct tribe around 1700, breaking away from the Shoshone in order to adopt a new nomadic lifestyle made possible only by the horse. The Comanche, who quickly developed an unrivalled reputation for skilled horsemanship, soon came to dominate the southern Great Plains. The horse—Europe's favorite domesticated animal—had become an indispensable part of Comanche culture and society.

Today, nothing could seem more "traditional" than the Irish potato or the Comanche on horseback. Yet those traditions are comparatively new, only made possible by the unprecedented ecological upheaval of the Columbian Exchange.

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