New Mexico foods have ‘Old World’ influence

By Sarah Meyer, Freedom New Mexico

A New Mexico author traced the path of now common foods across the Americas and from the Old World to the New World during a presentation Thursday at Eastern New Mexico University.

William Dunmire of Placitas based his talk on his book, “Gardens of New Spain.” His wife, Vangie, illustrated the book.

Near the end of his talk, he illustrated the “blending of cultures” by providing the historic source of ingredients in a typical Mexican meal:

The corn used for tamales and tortillas originated in the Americas.

Lettuce and cheese used to garnish tacos came from the Old World.

Avocados, chilis and beans are New World crops.

Rice and citrus fruits come from the Old World, as do the hops used to make cerveza (beer).

Honey, too, is an Old World product, which didn’t arrive until the 1700s with the European honeybee.

Sopapillas would not be possible without wheat from the Old World.

“Wherever you go today, you’ll find foods from the Old and New World,” said Dunmire.

The mix of foods and cultures started with the arrival of Spaniards in the Americas.

By the time Columbus arrived, many crops already were being cultivated by the Aztecs near what is now Mexico City.

“They were superb farmers,” Dunmire said.

Chilies were grown in the Americas as far back as 3,000 or 4,000 years, he said.

“Chili was always an essential ingredient in their cooking,” Dunmire said.

By 1000 AD, New Mexico natives were growing corn, beans and squash. Their principal crop was corn, but it didn’t look like today’s corn. The plants and ears were smaller.

Another staple of the Americas was cotton, which was grown 2,000 or more years ago, and from which comes most of the cotton used today.

Even though the Native Americans cultivated crops, they still relied heavily on wild plants, including prickly pear fruits, wild potatoes and purslane.

The only domesticated animals in North America before the Spaniards arrived were dogs and turkeys, Dunmire said.

On the other side of the world, by 1000 AD, Cordova, Spain, was “without a doubt, the garden capital of the world,” he said. Many of the Spanish plants came from Africa, brought by the Moors in the 700s.

“By 1491, the eve of Columbus’ voyage, every plant in the Old World was grown in Spain,” Dunmire said.

On Columbus’ second trip to the New World, he brought horticulturists and plants, which eventually made their way north.

Plants also traveled from the New World to the old, with Columbus taking specimens back to Spain at the end of his first voyage.

The Spaniards brought cabbage, peaches, cherries and grapes. The Franciscan missionaries needed grapes for wine in order to properly celebrate Mass, Dunmire said.

Spaniards also brought metal plowshares, winter crops such as onions, garden herbs such as cilantro and thyme, and perhaps most importantly, wheat. Spaniards introduced acequias, a ditch irrigation system still used in north-central New Mexico.

The Spaniards needed wheat for bread, water to irrigate the crop, and ovens to cook it in. The hornos still used by Native Americans were a Spanish import.

Beyond plants, the Spaniards made another important contribution: livestock, including cattle, horses and sheep.

Laura Robbins, a Family and Consumer Science student at ENMU, helped host the talk.

“I’m excited to see so many people here,” she said. “It was very informative.”

The talk was one of many events related to a Smithsonian Institute traveling exhibit, “Key Ingredients,” on display at ENMU’s Golden Library through April 4.

“I think we’re off to a good start,” said Robbins. She said Thursday’s talk was a good opportunity for students to learn about something they might otherwise not be exposed to.