Colombian Exchange Hit World Like Culinary Comet

Presented by Bill St. John, Journalist, Culinary Historian

What we call the Colombian Exchange was that vast interchange of foodstuffs (and peoples, non-edible plants, technology, cultures, diseases and various animals) between the New World and the Old World that began in 1492 A.D. when Columbus “reunited” those two hemispheres.

Come join us as culinary historian Bill St. John serves us the story of the Exchange’s most noteworthy foods: maize, the potato and tomato, cacao, many squashes and beans, the chicken, turkey and the hog.

“Note that the exchanges were in both directions” Bill says. “The tomato and turkey, East, for example; in their turns, the chicken and hog, West—and the exchanges or swaps changed each hemisphere’s diet massively and forever.”

Some samplings from Bill’s talk:

  • The North American colonies didn’t even obtain the tomato from its native (what we now call) Mexico; it came to us from British settlers here. And from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who planted tomatoes at Monticello in 1781.
  • Unlike the dog, about which you could argue we domesticated it (from the wolf), I like to think that the pig domesticated us.
  • Of all the foods that Columbus and his peripatetic descendants brought from the New World to the Old——none since has been more widely planted globally than maize (Zea mays), what we call corn. It remains the most important grain consumed by humans in Latin America (and also in Africa), and the second most consumed on earth. But oddly, of the three global grain crops to include rice and wheat, it is the only one not grown primarily for direct human consumption.
  • Because the turkey, brought back to Spain by Columbus, was from Honduras, where he landed on his fourth voyage, it was of the strain and progeny of the original turkey flocks from Mexico and the (now) Southwestern United States. Because it was so readily accepted, propagated, and cooked with delight by the English and other Europeans, when it was brought (back) to the New World by the English in the late 1580s and into the early 1600s, it was that turkey to make the trip.

BIOGRAPHY: During his long career, Bill St. John has worked in the kitchen on the Orient-Express, interviewed the nuns who cook for the Pope, and offered his shoulder as a resting place for a napping Julia Child (twice!) during boring meetings.

He has written about food for nearly 50 years, including a five-year stint at Tribune Newspapers where he covered wine and food pairing. He also lectured on history, food, wine and religion for students from the University of Chicago Graham School.

Bill has returned to his native Denver, where he was a newspaper and magazine journalist, television reporter and college professor. He’ll be “Zooming” to us from his Colorado home.


Wednesday, May 31, 2023
7 p.m. Central Time
Presented Via ZOOM

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