Monday, May 14, 2018

Chile Pepper and Tomato Time



 It is hot and dry, just the conditions that our favorite edibles originating in South America adore. A decade ago, research reported in the Journal of Science concluded the chile pepper may be the oldest cultivated spice in the Americas. A 6,100 year old archaeological specimen, a bowl, was found intact. As scientists scraped the residue, they found it contained both chile peppers and corn. In all, seven New World sites have found chile pepper residues and also the remnants of corn. This would suggest that these two foods, still intimately paired in South American cuisine, have been used as staples since ancient times.
Additionally scientists found chile pepper residues in utensils in both the Amazon basin and on the coast of Ecuador. This is positive indication that cultivation occurred in coastal and tropical cultures, which until now were considered primitive. The peppers were important enough to be traded across the huge mountain range to the home of the sophisticated and advanced Incas.
Within decades of contact with European Conquistadors, the New World plant was carried across Europe and into Africa and Asia where it was met with wild enthusiasm. Upon acceptance on these continents, it was further altered through selective breeding and today it is a cherished for its heat!
 Never to be outdone, researchers in the Middle East have recently claimed Chile peppers have actually been used 1,000 years earlier than the current South American 'oldest specimens'. The birthplace of agriculture has long been considered the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia where peppers were purportedly discovered at 10,000 year old sites.

Until that discovery the three oldest known spices were capers which have been found in Iran and Iraq; coriander found in Israel, and fenugreek found in Syria.  It is not known whether the capers, fenugreek, or coriander were domesticated or wild, however it has been determined that the peppers had been cultivated. *To be considered domesticated, a population of plants must have their behavior, life cycle or appearance significantly altered as a result of being under the control of humans for multiple generations.

Also originating in South America, tomatoes were prized by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD. They were brought to Europe from the Americas by Conquistadors in the early 1600’s but were considered poison by the wealthy.
Unfortunately, the flatware and plates of that time were made of lead based pewter and the acidic tomato caused the lead to leach from their dinnerware to the fruit. When it was eaten, the victims died of lead poisoning… a very unpleasant way to go. Peasants had no such finery in their kitchens and ate from wooden plates with wooden spoons. Thus the tomato was relegated as a food of the lower classes where it was widely accepted as a staple.
Not until the early 1800’s did the upper classes begin to embrace the tomato… by the time of the Civil War the tomato was accepted throughout the south as a garden and dietary staple.  Americans eat over 12 million tons of tomatoes each year, making it one of the most popular items on our menu…  Salsa anyone?
Photo credit: Dreamstime.com