16 May 2010

Foods of Anatolia prior to the introduction of American plants

A few days ago I read the chapter titled "New world foods and old world demography" in the 1972 book The Columbian Exchange. Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. Crosby's hypothesis was that the plant foods, especially corn and potatoes, introduced to the Old World, i.e., Europe, Asia and Africa, from the Americas were the main causes of the population increases that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Crosby's arguments didn't quite apply to the Middle East and Turkey (back then the Ottoman Empire). He was aware of it, but he nevertheless stuck with this claim.

While reading Crosby, I was reminded of a passage in On Horseback through Asia Minor, Frederick Burnaby's account of his voyage across Anatolia in the winter of 1876. In the city of Sivas in central Turkey, Burnaby visited some Christian missionaries and heard this from one of them:

There was actually a great deal of difficulty in introducing the potato plant...Some foreigners brought over the seeds and planted them. They came up very well; the soil is admirably suited for their growth. But the natives would not eat the potatoes. It was not until the military authorities, who were short of provisions, supplied them to the soldiers in lieu of other edibles that the soldiers would partake of this vegetable. They soon acquired a taste for it, and potato culture is gradually spreading throughout the district.
So if this was indeed a reliable account, potatoes seem to have been introduced to Turkey sometime in the mid-19th century.

Maize, that is, corn, on the other hand, had been introduced to the area much earlier. The oldest record of corn growing in Turkey that I know of is was given by Fredrik Hasselquist in the account1 of his travels to collect specimens for Carl Linneaus. In 1750, while going from Izmir to Manisa ("Smyrna to Magnesia"), he noted: "In one hour's travelling from the town we came to a large field, covered with Olive-trees, and in some places turned into corn land."

These were the main foods eaten in Anatolia prior to the introduction of American plants:

  • Wheat

  • Rice (not native to the area but probably of ancient introduction)

  • Legumes (Old World species, such as lentils, chick peas, etc.)

  • Grapes, mulberries, pears, apples, plums, etc. (not sure about the provenances of melon and water melon)

  • Olives and olive oil

  • Various locally grown indigenous leafy vegetables and roots2

  • Meat from cows, sheep and goats (and horses?)

  • Milk of the above and various fermented milk products, including yogurt and cheese

  • Chickens and their eggs (not native to the area, but probably of ancient introduction)

  • Fish in coastal areas

In addition, various wild birds and rabbits may have been consumed in rural areas. Domesticated geese may also have been raised but I am not sure how significant a food item they were. Nor am I sure how significant and widespread the consumption of nuts were, although at least hazelnuts and walnuts are native to the area. Finally, pure sugar was probably a rare commodity if it existed at all, but highly concentrated grape juice and honey were used as sweeteners.

These are the main edible plants of American origin introduced to Anatolia after the 15th century:

  • Potatoes

  • Corn

  • Tomatoes

  • Peppers

  • Squash

  • Pumpkin

Of these only the potatoes and corn are significant sources of calories and protein, while the rest, despite being rich in vitamins, has been used mainly as garnishes and side dishes.

Curiously, although potato the latecomer has since acquired a hefty share of the modern Turkish cuisine, the older corn has, at least until recently, never become a significant player in the Anatolian diet and is eaten mostly on the cob as a snack. Presumably, the corn grown in the 18th century was used primarily to feed animals.

So the bottom line is that I don't think the American plants have played a significant part in Anatolian history.

I will probably return to this subject in the future.

1Voyages and Travels in the Levant in the Years...Available in Google Books.
2Eggplants, often used in Turkish cooking, are not native to the area; they may have been introduced in the Middle Ages. And what about carrots? I believe they originated somewhere in Asia.


Deniz Bevan said...

"Crosby's hypothesis wass that the plant foods, especially corn and potatoes, introduced to the Old World, i.e., Europe, Asia and Africa, from the Americas were the main causes of the population increases that took place during the 18th and 19th centuries."
That's sort of interesting, but how dothe populations in Europe and North America compare? I mean, Native Americans and Inca and Aztec, etc. were presumably eating corn and potatoes the entire time - why should the introduction of their foods from the 16th century on, only lead to a population increase in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Michael said...

I am somewhat dubious that Hasselquist would have been referring to maize when he says "corn land". It's my understanding that "corn" would have simply meant grain to a European of that era.


One would need to read Hasselquist's notes, which were in Swedish, to see what word he actually used. There could, of course, have been a translation error.
However, the next oldest record of corn from Turkey was by Richard Chandler (Travels in Asia Minor, and Greece...) & dates from 1765. He was in roughly the same area & wrote: "As we approached Vourla [Urla], the little vallies were all green with corn, or filled with naked vine stocks in orderly arrangement..."


Deniz: Good question. I suppose I most places in Europe & elsewhere in the Old World, potatoes, corn, manioc, etc., were in addition to what was already available, especially in addition to wheat & the animal derived foods, whereas in the Americas they were more or less all they had.