Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Food Bugs

by Vonda N. McIntyre

Here’s a question I’ve been asking for a while:

In the pre-Columbian Eastern hemisphere, what we used to call in geography class “The Old World,” most of the staple foods are based on the action of microbes: Bread, beer, wine, yoghurt, cheese, sauerkraut, kefir, injira, miso. Fish sauce.

In the pre-Columbian Western hemisphere, this is not true.


Did no useful food bugs exist in the Western hemisphere?

What made this difference, which seems notable to me?

I’ve asked this question of everyone I’ve run into who might have some insight into the answer, and tossed it into group conversations. Only one person claimed to be able to answer it.

The one person was a restaurateur who said, “I’m not going to write your Ph.D. thesis for you!” and strode away with his nose in the air.

Since I fled screaming from graduate school nearly forty years ago (never mind that I got a B.S. in biology, not food science), I thought his reaction was overwrought. For some strange reason I haven’t patronized that restaurant again.

When I ask the question, whether I pose it to historians, anthropologists, foodies, or friends I’m hanging around with over a fermented beverage, everybody else says either, “Huh, I never thought of that!” or “But Native Americans had corn beer.” This is true. They also had chocolate, whose production includes a fermentation step. But none of the fermented foods in the Americas before Columbus were staple foods, as far as I can make out. They were ceremonial. Chocolate was reserved for the nobility, and the male nobility at that. (I’d be willing to bet there was a thriving black-market trade in cocoa beans among women, but I don’t know how I’d ever prove it.) Cocoa beans were valued and used as currency – which seems a waste of a perfectly good cocoa bean to me, and I don’t blame anybody who counterfeited them in wax or dough or clay and made off with the real thing, and possibly with one of the golden goblets Moctezuma drank his chocolate out of, too.

One of the most useful reasons for using fermentation is food storage. Imagine if you’d just invented beer or wine. You would have thought you’d died and gone to heaven. You have just invented a way to keep part of your crop from spoiling, to store it over winter so it’s less vulnerable to varmints, and to have a little fun with alcohol as well.

It didn’t even give you dysentery, typhoid, or cholera, unlike the polluted water that tends to collect around or downstream from human cities. Compared to that, what’s a hangover once in a while?

So why didn’t pre-Columbian Americans store large amounts of corn as beer, or make fruit into wine? Why didn’t they invent vodka, considering they invented potatoes? They knew how to make corn beer; some groups did use it for ceremonial purposes. But none, as far as I’ve been able to find out, used it as a staple food.

One answer I’d accept is “Your hypothesis is incorrect.” That’s what hypotheses are for. But nobody has ever said that and backed it up with evidence. Nor has anyone ever offered me a Grand Unified Theory of Food Bugs that would explain the difference.

It may be that the answer exists only piecemeal, that no GUTfb exists.

Bread, for example, requires gluten, or it can’t rise. Corn doesn’t have any gluten, so you can’t make yeast bread from it. Thus the tortilla and the corn cake. The Old World domesticated cows, sheep, goats, yaks, camels, horses; the Americas had llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs. Did anyone ever drink or ferment llama milk? Perhaps llamas aren’t big enough to give enough milk to make it worthwhile to collect.

Never even mind trying to milk a guinea pig.

The conversation about fermented foods often jumps straight from “all fermented foods” to alcohol, and from there to lists of the different intoxicants that people in the Americas used before Europeans came along with whiskey and rum. I acknowledge that practically every human group (as well as birds and most mammals; I don’t know about crocodiles or dinosaurs) has used intoxicants, whether it was alcohol obtained from fermentation, psychoactive drugs from smoking or eating herbs, mushrooms, or cactus buttons, or spiritual experiences gained by ritual.

But the question isn’t about intoxicants. It’s about food bugs, microbes domesticated to produce food, and why there was such a notable difference in their use between the Old World and the Americas.

So I’ll keep asking the question, in hopes of finding a Grand Unified Field Theory of Food Bugs.

— Vonda N. McIntyre

Vonda N. McIntyre is the author of the Nebula-winning novel The Moon and the Sun, which is being offered at Book View Café in electronic form for the first time. “The Natural History and Extinction of the People of the Sea,” the faux-encyclopedia article that inspired the novel, written by Vonda N. McIntyre and illustrated by Ursula K. Le Guin, appears as a Book View Café Bonus story.

Other fiction by Vonda N. McIntyre, including cell-phone-friendly formats of The Moon and the Sun, can be found in the fiction section of her website, as can mint copies of her published books. To celebrate the debut of Book View Café, book prices are temporarily lowered.

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Toward a Grand Unified Theory of Food Bugs — 10 Comments

  1. Do they really ferment vodka? I was under the impression it is distilled.

    Bread and beer were invented fairly close together, in the ancient task of Coping When Grain Goes Bad. In fact beer may be a byproduct of bread making: agh, the dough has gone bad! I’m so disgusted, I am going to soak the bowl, for better cleaning tomorrow, and go to bed. The next day, stuff happens and I don’t get back to the dishes for a week. By then, it’s beer! There is a process in beermaking which involves a mother (a word of significance), a piece of dough or bread that is put into the grain/water mix to help it ferment.

    So maybe, if you do not get a foothold with yeast breads, you never get further along into beer, cheese, and so forth.

    Can one make beer out of corn? If not, why not? All you really need is the starch/sugar in water. There are other starches, acorns and such…

  2. You have to put whatever you’re making your alcohol out of through a fermentation process in order to get the alcohol you’re going to distill.

    It’s a little bit surprising that it took quite a while into human history for distillation to be discovered. It isn’t that hard, and you don’t need shiny lab equipment. In the eastern Mediterranean we kept seeing little shacks by the side of the road. They were stills where people were making moonshine.

    Making corn beer is pretty widespread — but in the pre-Columbian Americas, it wasn’t, as far as I’ve been able to find out, used as a staple food. It was used ceremonially.


  3. If the alcohol/drug has a sufficient kick to it, taste seems to fall by the wayside. Proof: those shamans who would concentrate a hallucinogen for the tribe by eating it; their urine was then, uh, pretty potent.

  4. Eileen, oh my gosh, 30 steps! and based on a mold no less. How extremely cool. A brief googling just turns up more copies of the Parakari article, which doesn’t say if the people who make it use it as a staple or on special occasions. (Something that takes 30 steps hints at special occasion, but not necessarily.) Thanks!

    Have you eaten huitlacoche? What does it taste like?

    I’ll definitely look into the different fermented cassavas. Thanks!

    Brenda — I believe I read somewhere that some historians believe that’s the process by which Soma was produced, and, again, a brief googling hints that’s one possibility. Whether there’s proof of this or even any evidence, I don’t know.


  5. Wonderful topic, Vonda. I used to work at the Food Safety Unit of the World Health Organization, and if you addressed this to them, someone might help. If no response, get back to me and I’ll try to find a specific person.
    One wonders how much socioeconomic effect this lack of food-storage and liquid-purification capability might have had; while decisive in small populations in times of famine, could it also have contributed to lesser resilience in the civilizations which fell so abrubtly and finally? No recovery power, compared to the Eurasian civilizations.
    Maybe reliance on dairy-based food storage was so embedded in the Viking culture, from desperate history of an already marginally sustainable far northern economy, that this explained why they would not supplement it with fish when they colonized Greenland, and subsequently perished when climate change rendered dairy production insufficient.
    …Or maybe the Greenland bishop just had a bee in his horned helmet…

  6. What a great question! You sure know how to pick ’em.

    A) We know, as you point out, that the peoples of the Americas weren’t uniformly averse to microbial assistance (chicha and xocolatl). We know that they appear to have had plenty of genetic basis in common with the East Asians, who _do_ use microbial assistance, so it’s unlikely to have been some sort of genetically based dislike. (That is, fermentation products probably didn’t just smell bad to them.) We know that at least some areas of North America are capable of supporting happy ferments (_e.g.,_ _Lactobacillus_sanfrancisco_.)

    B) Is it possible that in general, the “bugs” that were present in the Western hemisphere were more likely to be noxious than the ones in Europe and East Asia? (Is it even possible that the bugs here were significantly different from the ones in Europe and East Asia? I would think not, given the fact that a yeast spore or a bacterium is small enough to be carried on the wind, and the wind blows everywhere. OTOH, mushrooms are significantly different on different continents, and they are also propagated by smallish spores, so there’s at least some chance. See also Belgian beer and SFO sourdough, though it is to be admitted that both of those are the result of protracted effort on the parts of many people.)

    C) Is it possible that under common fermentation conditions, nasty things [cyanobacteria of less-than-friendly sorts, etc.] may have done better in the West than the friendly ones, rendering fermentations risky?

    C+) There is at least one area in Africa where people grow millet. They apparently ferment the millet, to increase the amount of protein in it. Millet (at least the kind they grow) happens to contain an antithyroid principle of some sort, which is also enhanced by fermentation, and in those areas there is increased incidence of goiter. …But they keep doing it, so even ferments that are not entirely friendly are tolerated by the people who perform them. (Yeah, I know, shouldn’t overgeneralize. _Some_ ferments that are less than entirely friendly are tolerated by _some_ people.)

    D) There is clay in many places. There is pottery in most of them. There is a fair amount of clay in the Greater Specific Northwet, but there is no pottery in the PNW (at least, until the Europeans show up). When I first went to the Burke Museum (I think that’s where this happened), looked at the exhibits, didn’t see any pots, and asked a docent, the docent said that the local folks just never happened to get into that. Go figure. (It is possible that they did little bits of it in some parts of the area, but I have never seen even one example, far as I can recall.)


    I wanna know how Eileen found the parakari thing. That really is amazing. There is a vague parallel with tempeh, but tempeh is a mixed ferment, and is a far simpler process: far as I recall it, you cook the soybeans, hull them, let them cool a bit, inoculate, wrap in banana leaves or whatever, and ignore for a couple-three days. (That’s in a tropical climate; under temperate conditions we have to keep them warm.)


    I’ve tasted huitlacoche (got it in the grocery store in Seattle, as I recall, in a can) ; it seemed fairly bland to me, but it wasn’t fresh, so that’s not a reliable indication.


    Anyway, hell of a fine question.

    Cheers —

  7. Hi Judy, hi Jon,

    Judy, if you think somebody from WHO would be interested in the subject, I’d be delighted to have them join the discussion. But I don’t want to go diverting anyone with the question — only if they’re interested

    And thanks for your real URL — looks fascinating. (Except, I have to confess, for the crawl, which does make me a bit queasy.)

    I have to doubt the “more toxic bacteria” idea because the western hemisphere’s people were relatively free of communicable diseases before the arrival of Europeans. And according to one correspondent, they tended not to pollute their water the way European cities did. (Possibly because they were afflicted with fewer nasty bacteria to pollute with, but that’s just my hypothesis.)

    Of course the result of that was, as you mention, that nobody in the Americas had any resistance to the imported diseases.

    Are you thinking some of the lack of resistance might be due to the lack of familiarity with domestic bacteria? That’s a *really* interesting idea! Sort of like getting cowpox to avoid smallpox?

    Jon, I have to doubt the idea of more-noxious bacteria in the Americas, partly because of the relative lack of disease-producing bacteria, and partly because the people of the Americas did use fermentation and it didn’t appear to do them any harm — but they didn’t use it to make *staple foods.* They saved it for ceremonial purposes.

    The folks in the Northwest based their economy on wood and salmon, if my memory is correct. They made baskets of cedar bark. Some of the baskets were water-tight. They also made the most amazing wooden boxes, steamed and bent and sewn together (and beautifully carved), also water-tight, which they used for cooking (by putting hot rocks in the water till it boiled). Have you been to the Pacific Northwest Indian art exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum? It’s extraordinary. Practically everything they did or made was artwork, even daily tools and utensils. When you’re here next we should go down there.

    Their material culture could have had pottery, but they did things differently. Maybe the answer to my question is as simple as that: people in the Americas could have used a lot of microbial methods of creating staple foods, but they did things differently.


    PS I love injira. Sorry to hear it isn’t good for the thyroid, but considering I don’t eat it that often, I’m not giving it up!