Italian Food Before the Tomato
We all know Christopher Columbus, our elementary school teachers taught us that he sailed the ocean blue in 1492. He also began an important process of knowledge and material transfer between Europe and the Americas called "The Columbian Exchange." Beyond introducing diverse populations to new diseases and technologies with which they weren’t accustomed, the exchange also brought new plants and foodstuffs to innovative chefs around the world.
Among the many notable crops in this process was the humble tomato. Today, we struggle to imagine Italian food without it--from velvety pasta sauces or the base of a soup to salads like Panzanella or caprese, tomatoes hold a special place in our conception of Italian cuisine. But Italians, like other Europeans, were very reticent to adopt the suspicious new nightshade.
Beyond concerns about its familial connection to deadly belladonna, the poison used to kill Emperor Augustus of Rome in 14 C.E, there already existed a robust canon of culinary traditions on the Italian peninsula. Resistance to change is common, especially in an arena as intimate as the food we consume, and it took almost three centuries before the tomato was commonly accepted as a staple of Italian cooking.
Beyond the Ingredients
The food of Italy is as varied and diverse as its history, art, or music. The local climate, soil quality, and access to markets created an abundance of regional dishes and techniques that shaped the geography of Italian cuisine. Olive oil or butter, seafood or meat, even subtleties like pasta prepared with or without egg are major distinctions between regions and even between towns only a few miles apart.
This culinary diversity exists as a result of thousands of years of trial and error by chefs and home cooks and predates the Columbian exchange process. Essential knowledge like bread baking, winemaking, animal husbandry, and agriculture existed in Italy long before the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria set sail and explains why we would largely recognize, if not so enthusiastically enjoy, pre-Columbian Italian food.
So What Did They Eat?
First off, they *did* have pasta so you can breathe a little easier. It was prepared in much the same way it is now -- flour formed into a dough, dried, then boiled or baked -- and even dressed with sauces and accompaniments that remain popular to this day, like oil and garlic, ricotta, or a paste of fresh herbs.
Pizza as well, or at least its distant cousin also existed before the introduction of the tomato. Flatbreads topped with spreads or cheeses and topped with vegetables or meat date back thousands of years, and satiated many hungry Italians before the invention of the Margherita pizza in the 18th or 19th century.
Less recognizable to modern palates are flavor combinations like meat with sugar or dried fruit with fish which have, thankfully, been driven off the menus at most ristorante in Italy today. The drive to demonstrate one's wealth to dinner guests created a tendency toward dishes that weren’t designed to impress with the quality of their flavor or preparation, but with the quantities of expensive ingredients heaped into the final product.
The Columbian exchange changed the trajectory of Italian cuisine and brought better variety and nutrition to the cooking of many cultures around the world. So the next time you’re in an Italian restaurant (no, Olive Garden doesn’t count) take a long look at the menu and imagine what you’d be eating if it weren’t for that blundering explorer from Genoa.
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