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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