The discovery of Americas changed Europe forever. One of the most curious aspects of the otherwise bloody encounter is how Europe integrated a whole array of food (and drugs) it had never heard of before. In this weird history of intrigues and religious fanaticism, South American Foods changed the History of Europe forever.
We all know tomatoes are a key to any good Italian dish. False : the tomato originated in South American. Tobacco, one of the most common drugs on the surface of the Earth : also from South America From ecclesiastical intrigues surrounding the potato to intellectual debates in coffeehouses fueled by caffeine, from papal controversies over tobacco to demonic suspicions surrounding the ripe, juicy tomato, Europe welcomed a series of gastronomic intruders from afar.
Even cocaine, originally a sacred plant of the Incas, found its place in elegant circles thanks to daring elixirs. In this whirlwind of exotic flavors and historical intrigues, Europe learned that the greatest culinary adventures often begin with a hint of fear and a touch of devilry.
Potato : the Devil’s root
Contrary to what one might think, most vegetables we take for granted today were met with great fear in medieval Europe. When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro brought potatoes to Pope Clement VII after ravaging the Inca Empire, the Church briefly considered banning the humble tuber on the grounds that potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible.
When potatoes were introduced in Scotland in 1728, they were vehemently denounced for not being mentioned in the Old Testament! In France, potatoes were long scorned from farm to palace, so much so that King Louis XVI ostentatiously wore the plant’s flower in his buttonhole to promote it.
This idea proved to be astute: potatoes offered Europe a formidable advantage against the litany of climate disasters that frequently caused famines. Accustomed to growing at altitudes up to 5,000 meters, potatoes adapted seamlessly to European lands, providing yields far superior to traditional cereals. Rich in calories (three times more than cereal), potatoes were also inexpensive and easy to store.
Coffee: the drink of revolutions
Just like potatoes and tobacco, coffee proved to be one of the greatest gustatory revolutions in Europe. The first coffee beans were introduced in the 17th century by merchants from the East. Initially reserved for the elite, this exotic beverage quickly won over all layers of European society. Cafés, or “coffeehouses,” began to flourish in major cities, providing Europeans with places for social gatherings and lively discussions.
Docteur Duncan, de la Faculté de Montpellier, en 1706, écrivait : “Le café et le thé étaient initialement utilisés uniquement comme médicaments lorsqu’ils étaient désagréables, mais depuis qu’ils sont devenus délicieux avec du sucre, ils sont devenus des poisons.”“Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography” par Dominic Streatfeild (2003)
The arrival of coffee had much broader, even revolutionary, implications. Up until the 18th century, the aristocracy, merchants, and nobles favored a mix of various alcoholic beverages. However, in the 18th century, coffeehouses emerged as new establishments where the flagship product was a stimulant that didn’t intoxicate but dangerously fueled conversation. Additionally, coffee was a pasteurized product due to boiling, a detail that seems obvious today but made all the difference in an era lacking basic hygienic infrastructure.
Coffee became a new focal point, centered around ideas, coinciding with the emergence of new newspapers. It became a hub for political gatherings, the headquarters of philosophers, where different political parties met, organized, and planned their next moves.
Simultaneously, salons were born, private events organized by women where intellectuals mingled with occasional conspirators, thus stirring up subversive ideas. It’s fascinating to note that the French Revolution was prepared by these tea and coffee drinkers, gathered in the warm atmosphere of these stimulating meeting places.
Tobacco Worth Its Salt
Christopher Columbus, convinced he had reached the Indies, sent his emissary, a certain de Jerez, bearing letters of greetings to the “Gran Khan.” Upon his return, this emissary not only brought back local products but also a strange wrapped leaf, exuding a stale odor, marking Europe’s first encounter with tobacco.
De Jerez was quickly convinced, returning to Europe with this narcotic plant and starting to smoke using enormous sacks, long before the advent of the cigarette as we know it today. His terrified neighbors considered him an evil sorcerer under Satan’s influence. De Jerez paid the price for this discovery, spending seven long years in prison for consuming this new drug. However, upon his release, he discovered with astonishment that everywhere at the Spanish court, people indulged in tobacco.
The tobacco craze quickly spread across Europe, despite the Pope’s anger, who sought to excommunicate smokers. A few decades later, most European monarchs had succumbed to this new epidemic, preferring taxation to prohibition.
This growing popularity, fueled by nicotine addiction, was initially explained by the supposed medicinal virtues of tobacco. This drug, the most consumed in the Americas, was initially described by European scholars as a potent aphrodisiac and a remedy for intestinal ailments.
It is important to note, however, that in the Americas, tobacco was primarily eaten or drunk. It was the Europeans who popularized its consumption through inhalation. Ironically, the introduction of tobacco cigarettes in China was the catalyst that led many Chinese to smoke opium, sold under the authority of the British Empire.
The Tomato: A Diabolical Fruit?
In the 16th century, an Italian explorer named Giovanni di Napoli brought back a strange fruit from the Americas: the tomato. When this red, juicy fruit appeared in European markets, Europe was gripped by culinary panic. Rumors circulated that the tomato was the fruit of the devil, capable of causing strange illnesses. Some even claimed it had magical powers and was used in obscure rituals. Urban legends about people falling ill after eating tomatoes were widespread.
Nevertheless, a courageous Italian chef, Antonio Di Napoli, decided to defy the taboo and created the very first pasta dish with tomato sauce. When Pope Clement VIII tasted this delicious concoction, he decreed that the tomato was blessed and could be consumed. Thus, the tomato entered the pantheon of European cuisine, despite the initial fears.
Chocolate: A Devious Stimulant
It was the Olmecs who are believed to have started cultivating cocoa more than 4,000 years ago. Long after them, the Maya consumed cocoa as a divine beverage. Throughout South America, cocoa was highly prized and was even used in the Aztec civilization as a common currency.
The first description by a Spanish traveler was far from flattering. Disgusted, the conquistador claimed he had been forced to spit out the foul substance! For others, however, the delicious drink was nothing less than the nectar of the gods. Yet, some Protestant Puritans considered chocolate a temptation from the devil, a sweetness too decadent to be enjoyed.
Nevertheless, chocolate made its first appearance in Spain under Charles V and quickly became a favorite at the royal court and among the clergy.
Two centuries later, during the industrial revolution, chocolate reached the masses. A brilliant Swiss chocolatier, Jacques Le Chocolatier, created an exquisite version of the chocolate drink by adding milk and sugar. He organized a tasting for the nobles of Paris, plunging them into sweet ecstasy. The intoxicating aroma of chocolate filled the parlors, and soon, even the staunchest opponents were won over. Chocolate became a symbol of pleasure in Europe, erasing all initial reservations.
Coca Leaf: Freud’s Miracle
The use of coca Erythroxylaceae coca dates back 8,000 years. Spread across more than 250 species throughout South America, the original plant is an ordinary-looking bush with oval green leaves, containing an average of less than 1% pure cocaine by volume.
The Incas also made sacrifices on pyramids, where high priests chewed coca leaves while chanting somewhat hallucinatory incantations. Coca was burned so that the gods in the higher realms could smell its aroma. Coca was also important for warfare. Movements in the leaves placed in water were interpreted to determine which military strategy would work. The Emperor himself was a big fan: two emperors even named their wives in honor of coca.
At the height of its power, the Inca Empire dominated the entire West Coast of America from Ecuador to Chile, covering a distance of 4,000 kilometers and comprising a population of nearly 12,000,000 people. The concept was simple: peasants could do almost anything they wanted as long as they paid a third of their crops to the Empire. To make this vast personal garden work, the Inca Empire built 24,000 kilometers of roads used by extraordinary runners, presumably nourished by coca.
Coca arrived in Europe around the 16th century, but except for a few enthusiasts, nobody seemed interested until the 19th century. Paolo Mantegazza published a report on the effects of coca leaf on cognition in 1863. Immediately, the remedy drew crowds. A Corsican chemist produced within five years different prototypes of what he called Vin Mariani, a coca-based wine that was literally a cocaine elixir. Mr. Mariani touted the merits of his product, boldly proclaiming that Vin Mariani fortified the body and mind…
Mariani – or rather his wine – became a sensation by sending a case of wine to President of the United States, William McKinley, whose secretary wrote back saying the president was already familiar with it. He then sent a case to Pope Leo XIII, who awarded him a special papal gold medal in honor of his creation. Meanwhile, it was reported that Ulysses S. Grant, the great general of the American Civil War, took a spoonful of Vin Mariani every night before bed during the last five months of his life, which sustained him throughout the process of writing his memoirs.
It was Mariani, therefore, who was responsible for the early popularization of the coca leaf, at least certainly its access to the general public. But another prominent figure would do everything in his power to elevate cocaine to the pantheon of great remedies of his time: Sigmund Freud.
The vast majority of drugs were perfectly legal in 19th-century America. Towards the end of the century, there was a trend towards miracle cures for addiction. Strangely, these elixirs often had the effect of making people even more dependent! American Leslie Keeley sold the White Star Secret Liquor Cure, a packet of cocaine capsules that promised to cure alcoholism! (Ironically, around the same time, cocaine addiction was being treated with whiskey!) Keeley allegedly sold his elixir to over 500,000 Americans and made millions of dollars…
On the other side of the Atlantic, Freud discovered the coca leaf in 1884 and believed he had found the medical breakthrough he had been dreaming of. He wrote to Martha just days after discovering cocaine, telling her that if his project worked, “they will finally be able to establish themselves.” Freud contributed to the transition from an elite drug to one for the masses by recommending it to all his acquaintances and friends until a series of tragic accidents forced him to acknowledge that it was not a panacea…
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- “Between Coca and Cocaine: A Century or More of U.S.-Peruvian Drug Paradoxes, 1860-1980” par Paul Gootenberg, 2001, The Woodrow Wilson Center
- “Sigmund Freud en son temps et dans le nôtre“. par Élizabeth Roudinesco (2014)
- “History of Coca: “The Divine Plant” of the Incas” par W Golden Mortimer (1901) J H Vail & Company
- History of Coffee, Britannica
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