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5 Things Christopher Columbus Ate

Whatever his legacy, it's undeniable  Columbus shook up European cooking with his New World imports. See more pictures of Christopher Columbus.

Much of what we learned about Christopher Columbus as kids is questionable. He did not, in fact, set out to prove the Earth was round -- most people already knew that by the late 15th century. And whether an already inhabited land can be "discovered" is, at the very least, up for debate.

One thing we know beyond a doubt is that Columbus found food -- new and amazing food in bright colors and bold flavors. European cooking as we know it hinges on what Columbus found when he mistook America for India and landed in the New World.

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We also know that what he and his seamen ate on their way over was not particularly bright or bold.

The contrast must have been striking.

Here, five things Columbus would have eaten on his adventures. The first is a common seafarer food from the time, and one you'll want to do a very loose take on if you include it in a holiday feast.

This is a replica of Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, but the original was sure to have been stuffed with hardtack to last the journey.
This is a replica of Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria, but the original was sure to have been stuffed with hardtack to last the journey.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many of us have sworn them off. Repeatedly. Columbus and his men, more concerned with survival than weight control, definitely ate carbs.

Not, perhaps, the carbs we crave, though. The bread Columbus ate was "hardtack," an unleavened, hard, thick bread that could survive a long sea journey without spoiling. It's sometimes called a sea biscuit. Hardtack was twice baked to help preserve it, reducing the moisture that could breed mold.

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All sorts of preservation techniques helped make Columbus's long journey possible. You're probably more familiar with the next staple on our list.

For a commemorative meal...

Consider fresh-baked bread or Mediterranean-inspired flatbread.

Garbanzo beans cooked with salt for seasoning would have been staple fare for Columbus and his men.
Garbanzo beans cooked with salt for seasoning would have been staple fare for Columbus and his men.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock.com

Dried legumes, namely lentils and beans, were a significant part of a sailor's diet. Columbus would have eaten plenty of lentil stew, boiled beans and chickpeas seasoned with what the ship had handy -- basically, salt.

What Christopher Columbus and his crew probably did not eat, or at least didn't eat much of, was fresh meat. That, too, would have been salted.

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For a commemorative meal…

Consider lentil soup, hummus or baked beans (with brown sugar, since Columbus did have sugar on board).

You may want to skip the salted, dried meat for your Columbus Day celebration and cut straight to the tacos.
You may want to skip the salted, dried meat for your Columbus Day celebration and cut straight to the tacos.
©iStockphoto.com/LauriPatterson

Like dried beans, dry bread, and sometimes dried fruits, preserved meat was a staple of sea life. While fresh fish was a possibility, most animal protein sources were salted.

Columbus would have commonly eaten things like salted (cured) beef, cod and sardines. Salted pork was also a constant presence onboard. In fact, pork was something that Columbus and his peers brought to the New World.

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Introduction of pork to Mexican cooking aside, for those who like bright, bold flavors, the benefits of a culinary exchange between Europe and the Americas at that time probably favored the former.

Take, for instance, the tomato.

For a commemorative meal…

Consider fresh-baked or fried cod, corned beef or carnitas tacos.

Imagine sinking into a juicy tomato after a diet of beans, hard tack and dried meats.
Imagine sinking into a juicy tomato after a diet of beans, hard tack and dried meats.
©iStockphoto.com/hdagli

Columbus and his men, on entering the New World, also entered a whole new world of food. In Spain and in Europe in general, they would have eaten, say, turnips, onions, garlic and carrots.

By the early 1500s, Columbus was probably dining on tomatoes, maize corn and sweet potatoes, all of which had been cultivated in South America for many years.

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Hard to imagine Spanish and Italian cuisine without the tomato (which is actually a fruit, to be technical), but there it is.

Last on our list is a cooking component that many cultures can't do without: spice.

For a commemorative meal…

Consider trying maize (if you can find it) or go with sweet potato pie, a corn-and-tomato salad, or, to meld the two worlds, a garlicky tomato sauce.

"Spice" before Columbus' voyage to America mostly meant salt.
"Spice" before Columbus' voyage to America mostly meant salt.
Photo courtesy of NASA

Christopher Columbus set out to find a shorter way to the spices of India. Instead, he found the spices of America. Columbus would have tasted, for the first time, the spicy flavors of chili pepper and cayenne, along with allspice.

The natives may also have introduced him to vanilla and cocoa (chocolate). The Aztecs ate chocolate straight and bitter. Only in Europe did cooks add sugar and milk to produce the creamy, sweet confection we know today.

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So by all means, feel free to finish off a Columbus Day meal with some chocolate cake, or chocolate pudding or chocolate cookies. Or a big hunk of plain-old chocolate. It's in the spirit of the holiday.

For more information on Christopher Columbus, Columbus Day and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

For a commemorative meal…

Consider chili, jalapeno poppers, Jamaican jerk chicken or mole.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Columbus Day: A Day of Discovery. Library Point Kidshttp://kids.librarypoint.org/Columbus_Day_a_Day_of_Discovery
  • Columbus Day: A History. Vernon Kids.http://www.vernonkids.com/cedarmountain/4thgradelinks/columbus/columbus.htm
  • Daly, Bill. "Culinary courier." Chicago Tribune. October 8, 2008.http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/food/chi-christopher-columbus-food-8oct08,0,630482.story
  • Remy, Bethany. "New World Foods." East Side Union High School District Staff.http://staff.esuhsd.org/balochie/studentprojects/newworldfoods/index.html
  • Stockwin, Julian. "Life Aboard." JulianStockwin.http://www.julianstockwin.com/Life_Aboard.htm

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