Monday, June 11, 2012

La tembiurehe (about food)

So, I'm reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. A review quoted on the cover of the book from The New Yorker says "The scope and the exlanatory power of this book are astounding", which I agree with. The book is not really about guns and steel, and is only sort of about germs. It's actually  about the rise of agriculture and plant and animal domestication and geography, and how it's not all random and arbitrary. There are a limited number of plants and animals that could have been and that have been domesticated in the world. There were only a handful of areas where this domestication was achieved independently and then those crops and animals were spread to other areas. Geography also determined the level of isolation of early agricultures, denying most non Eurasian societies the benefits of plants and animals that had been domesticated in neighboring regions.
It's related to the fascinating story of a few crops that Pollan tells in "The Botany of Desire" but expanded. Each and every domesticated food comes from somewhere and is tightly bound up with the history of the people that lived in that area.

So it's got me thinking about the foods that are avaliable here. South America was one of the few places in the world where agriculture arose independently. The Guaraní and Tupí native american peoples practiced agriculture in modern Brazil, Paraguay, Urugauy and Argentina. They obviously never reached the level of organization of the Incans, but one of Diamond´s theses is that food-producing societies benefitted greatly just by being able to adopt plants that were domesticated by thier neighbors, since the number of domesticable plants in any one area is generally very low.
Of the foods that are commonly eaten here many were domesticated in the Americas. Mandioca is of course the starch staple. Corn (domesticated in Mexico) is featured in many traditional foods: greasy cornbread (sopa paraguaya), gooey cornbread (chipa guazu), cornball and meat soup (boribori) and chipa (to which I have not yet paid proper tribute). Of the vegetables I can buy in most stores: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and onions; only onions were not domesticated in the Americas. Peanuts were domesticated by the Tupí-Guaraní and are commonly eaten, roasted así no más, or as a peanut brittle style desert. Squash and beans (both domesticated in Mexico) also for parts of the traditional cuisine, but beans seem to have a stigma attached to them. Most folks don´t like to admit they eat beans.
Tonight I went up to visit Lizzy and talk about our grant application to buy books for the library. Her host mom served me a bowl of locro for dinner which is a stew whose orgins are pre-colombian. It´s made with a white, fluffy kind of corn and beans and meat.
I live in a highly productive agricultural region of the country, but mostly the crops produced are for export or for non-food purposes. In this area soy (China), sorghum (Africa), cotton (both Old and New World), corn (Mecixo), and tung oil (China) are grown especially. This land used to be part of the Atlantic rainforest, but in just the recent decades it has become the agricultural heartland of the country.
We take for granted the wonderful diversity of the plant and animal products avaliable to us, and I appreciate Diamond's book for getting me to think about the implications for farming peoples stuck with limited, or no, local varieties of plants appropriate for domestication. I also appreciated his explanation of how agriculture arose at first; gradually and without anyone knowing where things were leading at the time. It´s the first time I´ve been able to wrap my head around how people and thier plants could undergo the huge changes, in behavior and physiology respectively, necesary for the rise of agriculture.
Other South American domesticates
Eastern SA: mandioca, peanut, rubber tree, pineapple, yerba mate
Andes: lots of potatoes, sweet potatoes, lima bean, coca, tobacco, pumpkin, llamas, guinea pigs
Shared with Mexico: corn, tomatoes, beans, amaranth, guava, cocoa, cotton, dogs
Just Mexico: turkey, squash, papaya

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