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Vanessa Quintanar, historian: “The potato was the American food that had the worst reception” | Culture

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Vanessa Quintanar (Madrid, 43 years old), food historian and guest professor in the Master of Management and Innovation of Gastronomic Culture at the University of Cádiz, has just published Cibus Indicus: American Foods in the Arts and Sciences of Early Modern Europe (16th-18th Centuries) on the Teatrum Naturae label. Behind this title lies the exciting story of how American foods occupied an increasingly important place in European art and literature. Velázquez, Cervantes, Quevedo, Tirso, Flemish masters, Goya appear… It is a work that allows us to contemplate painting in a completely different way. The interview took place this week in the Botanical Garden of Madrid and ended with a walk through the Prado Museum where, he maintains, “you can learn as much from food as from recipe books.”

Ask. To what extent did food change in Spain and Europe after 1492?

Answer. It changed at all levels. That is to say, it changed not only because new foods arrived, but the way of cooking was also transformed. It was a challenge for the men and women of that time who found foods that they didn’t quite know how to fit together. That is to say, it was not only a matter of material, physical, food, but also of ideas.

P. Was it a very quick transformation?

R. It was pretty fast. There are foods like turkey, which was called gallipavo, and that Columbus himself brought when he returned. And we know that, more or less, around 1515/17 they arrived in Italy. Birds at that time were considered the the highest gastronomic, so turkey is good news. They were eating swan or cormorant. I have never tried them, but I suspect that the turkey must be much better. The famous chocolate was initially a kind of secret of the Spanish Court. As historian Carmen Simón tells it, he hid in the jewelry box.

Four by Jan Brueghel the Younger ‘Abundance’ (1625), in the Prado Museum, in which numerous foods and animals from America appear.INMA FLORES

P. Was it a treasure?

R. Absolutely. It was a gift to kings or parents, or if a daughter got married in a foreign court, they sent her chocolate. But in principle it was something very restricted. Then, little by little, he moved to the popular classes. Although obviously the chocolate consumed by the court is not the one consumed by the people. And then there are the potato, corn or tomato. The literature of the Golden Age is a mine because we not only find them; but they are used to define. Tirso de Molina, when characterizing the Galicians, talks about corn bread. O Quevedo said that the Andalusians came loaded with desires and potatoes.

P. In your book, do you explain that Quevedo and Gracián already talk about turkey?

R It is the only American animal that is named in The Quijote. When Quixote and Sancho are talking about the nobles’ feasts, at one point Sancho assures me that “what I eat in my corner without fuss or respect, even if it’s bread and onion, tastes much better than the gallipavos at other tables.” There is also talk in the 17th century of tomato and cucumber salad. That is, art is telling us that these foods are being consumed.

'Old Woman Frying Eggs', by Diego Velázquez, painting kept in the National Gallery of Scotland.
‘Old Woman Frying Eggs’, by Diego Velázquez, painting kept in the National Gallery of Scotland.

P. He also explains that Velázquez was the first artist to paint the red pepper.

R. Rather than saying that it is the first pepper represented, it would be the first that I have found. It is the first pepper clearly in its nutritional function, because it appears in Flemish paintings as allegories of abundance. But in the case of Old woman frying eggs (painting from 1618 preserved in the National Gallery of Scotland) it is clear that it already has that function there. One can learn as much about food by walking through the Prado Museum as by reading recipe books.

P. Do you think there is another time in history where food has changed as much in such a short time as the arrival of food from America?

R. Historians usually talk about three moments in which gastronomy or food was forged in Spain. The oldest is Rome, with the arrival of the vine, the olive tree and the wheat, which are like the Mediterranean triad. Then, of course, there is the Arab world, which brings so many things, especially from Asia: sugar, rice, citrus. And then it would be the incorporation of American foods. In the 19th and 20th centuries, another revolution occurred, not so much in the ingredients, but in the transformation of those foods such as prepared food or the technology applied to food.

P. Do you think that food is a kind of antidote to racism despite the fact that food is often used as a source of nationalism?

R. It certainly seems to me that it is a cure for humility. That is to say, when one talks about Spanish gastronomy, in the end it is a mixture of things. Now that the topic of colonization and decolonization is so fashionable, it seems to me that food is a beautiful thing because it was an exchange in which both parties benefited. We receive a lot of food, but we also bring many interesting things without which right now gastronomy, for example Mexican, would not be the same, such as beef or pork.

Now that the topic of colonization and decolonization is so fashionable, it seems to me that food is a beautiful thing because it was an exchange in which both parties benefited.

P. Which American food had the most problems?

R. Of all the foods I have studied, the potato was the one that had the worst reception. It arrives later because it is not in the area of ​​Mexico, but rather occurs in the Altiplano. He faces all kinds of problems because among other things he is from the family of solanum, which since ancient times in Europe have had a very bad reputation, like belladonna. Then there was a whole medical trend that assimilated the shape of the fruits with possible diseases and it was said that they transmitted leprosy. But, through the account books, it is known that it was eaten, because obviously people were not squeamish, although it was officially animal food. Above all, it is very successful in the north of Spain. Then, during the European famines, he saved the lives of millions of people.

P. And when does gazpacho, another typically Spanish food with American ingredients such as tomatoes and peppers, begin to appear in the painting?

R. I haven’t seen it in art, although the tomato appears quite early. But, at the beginning of the 20th century, Emilia Pardo Bazán maintains in Old Spanish cuisine that gazpacho was a bracero soup, but that it is now served at the king’s table. It is already a national dish.

'A Dead Turkey', a painting by Francisco de Goya preserved in the Prado Museum.
‘A Dead Turkey’, a painting by Francisco de Goya preserved in the Prado Museum.

P. And when is the memory of their origin lost and they stop being exotic foods and become national foods?

R. When I talk about this, I always use as an example a painting from the Prado Museum, a dead turkey, by Goya. It is a small painting, which goes quite unnoticed. It is very interesting because it is part of a series of still lifes that he made at the same time as the Disasters of war. I always use that painting, painted between 1808 and 1812, as an example because the turkey has gone from being an exotic, rare animal to representing the massacred Spanish people, which is a bit of what it is symbolizing with that series. This turkey looks like it was killed. I see that picture and I think that this food is already part of the idiosyncrasy of the Spanish. I would say it happened at that time, in the 19th century. And then those foods are no longer just part of our gastronomy, but they were its watchword.

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