Scholarly Source: Rebecca Earle, "If You Eat Their Food...": Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange 

How did the Columbian exchange link worlds?

Rebecca Earle, "If You Eat Their Food...": Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America The American Historical Review 115, no. 3 (June 2010): 690-702

Rebecca Earle is Professor of History at the University of Warwick. She has written three books and countless articles on Spanish conquest of the new world and particularly the relationship between this conquest and the cultural significance of food.

Food shaped the colonial body in a number of ways. To begin with, the right foods protected Europeans from the challenges posed by the New World and its environment. Spaniards believed that they would not suffer from the excessive damp dangerous heavens of the Americas if they ate European food. For this reason, colonizers and settlers in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish America consistently concerned about their ability to access European foodstuffs. . . More fundamentally, food helped create bodily differences that underpinned the European categories of Spaniard and Indian. Spanish bodies differed from indigenous bodies because the Spanish diet differed from the Amerindian diet . . .
. . . Virtually all European writers of the time believed that Amerindians had at some point in the past migrated to the Americas from the Old World. . .
. . . Eating the wrong food and living unprotected in the American environment had turned ancient Spaniards into Indians, and contemporary Spaniards should take care not to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. . . . Without access to European food, Spaniards would sooner or later turn into Indians. "Race," in other words, was in part a question of digestion. . .
For this reason, Spaniards went to great lengths to obtain health-giving Old World foods, in particular the Iberian trinity of wheat bread, wine, and olive oil, together with meats such as lamb, beef, and pork. . .
These foods—along with a host of lesser ingredients, such as the chickpeas, melons, and radishes that Columbus carried with him on his second voyage—were important to the success of Spain's colonizing mission in several ways. Medical thinking maintained that European foods were what prevented Spaniards from degenerating into Indians, and individual explorers and settlers insisted—often in the face of considerable contrary evidence—that they sickened when deprived of familiar diet. For these reasons, Columbus had requested that his men be provisioned with supplies from Spain. He recognized, however, that the importation of European food would not provide a permanent solution. Settlers needed to cultivate items themselves if the colonial outposts were to survive. Attempts to grow and other European staples were accordingly made from the 1490s, and European livestock were introduced in both the Caribbean and the American mainland from the earliest days of Spanish settlement. . . . <