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How have Chowhounds changed history? Help me count the ways...

Food is the driving engine of evolution. Species after species thrives or perishes depending on whether it can solve the problem of eat and not be eaten. The early history of mankind is determined and even classified by the food supply, with hunters, hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and farmers. Farming techniques spread through the world (perhaps from Anatolia) and those with better techniques thrived. Later, this gave rise to the first civilizations, since organized co-operative projects were necessary to tame rivers and irrigate the land. According to the theory of oriental despotism, this centralization also gave birth to the first absolute rulers, and perhaps class divisions as well.

But in the beginning, the quest for food was merely the struggle for survival. Has the desire for gourmet food changed history? And how? These examples spring to mind:

1) The spice trade. The search for gourmet spices (especially cloves and pepper) sparked journeys of exploration, led to wars which changed the history of the world -- and wrecked (or at least forever changed) much of the Americas and also what is now eastern Indonesia. Columbus might have stayed at home had he not been seeking a cheap source of pepper.

2) Louis XIV. Courtly, formalized European cuisine was invented (or formalized) in the halls of Versailles. The Sun-King used decadent banquets as a way to consolidate his power. Nobles who might otherwise have been busy fomenting rebellion were enticed to spend their days at court, sated by luxury meals. (Perhaps the French were born Chowhounds: the tax on salt, the gabelle, inspired more resentment than an other royal policy.) Later on, the French used culinary prowess to assert their cultural superiority over the lands they colonied. Native leaders were invited to Paris, where they were wined and dined and eventually wound up as supporters of France. Perhaps it was no coincidence the the one French colonial mission that failed was in Mexico, which had a great cuisine of its own.

Can you think of any other ways in which Chowhounds have changed history?

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  1. 1. The Boston Tea Party had taxes on such things as tea as a motive.
    2. Sugar and rum were part of the triangle that included and pushed slavery.
    3. Consumption of buffalo tongue contributed to the eventual downfall of native American central plains populations.
    4. The idea of "banana republics" was generated by the corrupt relationships among American and multi-national food producers and Central American governments and politicians.
    5. Japanese consumption of whale meat put pressure on whale populations well after use of whale oil for lighting became unnecessary.
    6. American subsidies for corn and soy beans led to feedlot beef, one of the most atrocious of practices, and one that produces an unhealthy product.
    7. Diversion of water for irrigation for food and cotton has lead to the drying of the Aral Sea, an environmental disaster of unimaginable proportions.
    8. While large populations in South and SE Asia and sub-Saharan Africa continue to be chronically hungry, the globe faces increasing and huge health costs associated with diabetes and obesity brought about by increased global consumption of fast and processed foods.
    9. And, of course, the Pilgrims killed the Indians who had taught them about producing and preparing local foods--an event that set the pattern for the next few hundred years.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

      Good reply, thanks! I'd always thought that it was cotton that killed the Aral Sea, but you're right, it was irrigated rice fields though. Since you are in South America, here's another: huge latifundias producing gourmet crops for export take land from poor people.

      1. re: Brian S

        Latifundia land grabs are not that much of a problem--people, even the poor, are today quite well protected. On the other hand, crops like teff in Ethiopia and quinoa in the Andes that have become health foods in northern markets have led to local consumers getting priced out of what had always been traditional staples.

      2. re: Sam Fujisaka

        re: # 8, those populations remain hungry not due to true food shortages, but because of corrupt governments.

        re:# 9, saying the pilgrims killed the indians is absurdly simplistic. those in the mass bay colony lived with a solid treaty with their indian neighbors for many years. only when smallpox wiped out nearly half of new england's native population did real trouble begin to brew. and that was over land.

        1. re: hotoynoodle

          You're right. The globe does not lack food. I wouldn't really blame "corrupt governments," however. Problems of distribution have more to do with equity at a global scale and with policies that favor the "haves" over the "have nots." As to the Pilgrims, yes, I'm probably an absurd simpleton. I didn't mean, however, that they jumped up from the mythical table and stabbed their benefactors to death. Rather, the end result was squite similar.

      3. I bow my head to George Washington Carver for elevating the peanut every time I have my midnight snack or eat at a South Asian Restaurant.

        And how about the Earl of Sandwich?

        I think the Boston Crab Rangoon Cult, currently rampaging on Chowhound, should thank "Trader" Vic Bergeron.

        1. I would recommend both "Salt" and "Cod" by Mike Kurlansky, and "Much Depends On Dinner" by Margaret Visser, as good and entertaining reading on the fascinating history of food and its effects on history. Salt cod, BTW, was the third leg of the rum and slave trade, which is how baccala/bacalao/stoccafissa became such an ingrained part of Mediterranean cuisine. It was a compact and lightweight commodity, trouble-free to transport, and could be sold for cash and/or used to barter for slaves, and what was left could be fed to the "cargo" on their way to the Indies.

          13 Replies
          1. re: Will Owen

            I'm aware of the Kurlansky books. A lot of exploration was done by Basque sailors in search of cod.

            1. re: Brian S

              Basque sailors? I must be mistaken, but thought the Basques came from mountainous regions far from the sea.

              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                much of what is considered basque country is on the bay of biscay. the locals were considered fierce intrepid sailors and fearless fishermen. the town of san sebastian is in this region and is one of the best areas in all of spain for seafood.

                  1. re: Brian S

                    Thanks! But the account still leaves me puzzled after three readings. Were they salters-marketers or actual seafaring cod fishermen?

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      From my reading, they were both, and may well have sailed to America centuries before Columbus. Those Basque mountainous regions are right next to the Atlantic.

                      1. re: Brian S

                        The Basques have a long tradition of fishing and preserving cod, and yes, they were seafarers. In the book (think it was Cod), Kurlansky discusses sites up in New Foundland that may have been used for salt making and preserving cod for the trip back to Europe.

                  2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    Since you're a Fresno home boy, you may be more familiar with the mountain dwelling Basque shepherds who came to California. But don't forget about Donostia (San Sebastian) and the Basque seafarers.

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Absolutely spot on. I got to know those crusty old sheep herders living in trailers when I worked for the US Forest Service in the high Sierras. Could never imagine them being close to the sea. Likewise, food at the Yturri and Basque Hotel never seemed to have anything to do with seafarers.

                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        Sadly, the Basque boarding houses in San Francisco that fed laborers (and many hungry Cal students) are all gone. Here's my post on the festival I attended a few years ago -
                        Besides the demonstration of gateau ala broche I describe, the other interesting exhibit was the art of those shepherds. Carvings on tree trunks of headless but very voluptuous female forms.

                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                          I was a regular at the SF Basque Hotel restaurant in my salad days, but don't recall any Cal students (except myself, the year I commuted to Cal from Telegraph Hill by hitchhiking at the Embarcadero Freeway Broadway on-ramp), though it may have been popular for a weekend date trek.

                          Initially the BH had only one seating at 6:30, and time and the commute cost may have deterred Cal students during the week. There was a fixed menu for each day of the week (always two mains, and you got both), and I don't think Saturdays was one of "my" days, so I didn't know the Saturday crowd.

                          It definitely was a bargain for those with a twenty-something metabolism, and unlmited house wine was included.

                          1. re: Gary Soup

                            MW & GS, thank you. Yes, I miss the basque meals and the twenty-something metabolism.

                1. re: Will Owen

                  I've just pushed the "reserve" button on our library's collection for those three books. Any other recommended classics?

                2. Rumor has it that controversial chowhound Thomas Jefferson introduced pasta eating to the U.S. after falling in love with the dish while in Europe.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: thegolferbitch

                    He even brought some kind of pasta-making machine back home with him (as of COURSE he would, that gadget freak!). One visitor to Jefferson's White House wrote of being served "a kind of Pie, called Macaroni."

                  2. street vendors, door to door delivery service and fast food mavericks certainly have a colorful role in modern food history.

                    1. I'm not a food historian, so my answers would be random.

                      Your mention of Versailles reminds me of the invention of the restaurant itself by the French. Rebecca L. Spang’s book is worth reading.

                      Any historical event which caused massive movement of people to new places.

                      A means of communication so efficient –the Internet- which allows people all over the world to share cravings at the same time (Chowhound!) and a means of packaging and delivering regional goods with relative ease to anywhere on this planet.

                      A significant cultural shift which lauds once unthinkable eating practices – raw fish, certain fermented foodstuff, even fish itself (Lewis and Clark passed up on salmon in favor of buffalo meat. Go figure.)

                      More will come to me, but that’s a start.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: grocerytrekker

                        It took a while for tomatoes to catch on. Reknowned gourmand Edward VII wouldn't touch frog's legs until his inventive chef called them "thighs of young sea-nymphs"

                        1. re: grocerytrekker

                          This prompted me to find the book "The Invention of the Restaurant", a fascinating read.

                          A couple of chowhounds-relevant quotes:(what you should strive NOT to be)

                          "So frequently were restaurants portrayed and analyzed that one intrepid observer of Paris life was left to comment: “I shall have little to say about restaurants; the minor ones because they have so often been described by the adventurers of realist fiction; the great ones because everybody pretends to know more about them than anyone else.”

                          "What spilled from the French capital was not food (Paris, so said Grimod, “produces nothing”), but stories: stories about what had happened in restaurants, what could happen in restaurants, what might happen in restaurants. Novelists and playwrights often set scenes in restaurants, but they just as often neglected to mention any food whatsoever, as if a restaurant’s nutritive, restorative, and caloric functions were among its least significant attributes. When Balzac, in Une fille d’Eve, has three characters sup at Very’s they apparently consume nothing but champagne; when Stendhal’s Lucien Leuwen obeys his father’s order to strike a more dashing figure around Paris, all we know is that he spends “at least two hundred francs” nightly at the Rocher de Cancale."

                          "...everyone knew about Very's, but far fewer individuals were personally acquainted with that restaurant's interiors or had sampled the contents of its wine cellar. The Restaurant Very of the 1820s no more fed thousands of Parisians than the Bastille of the 1780s had held hundreds imprisoned (on July 14, 1789, the crowd had found seven prisoners to free), but their statistical insignificance did not prevent either from becoming a potent symbol"

                          Ah, the power of words.

                          1. re: grocerytrekker

                            Re Lewis and Clark - Buffalo meat was the food staple east of the Continental Divide, and Salmon was the staff of life west of the Divide. There was never an either-or option between the two foodstuffs.

                          2. Your operational definition of Chowhound seems misplaced here. Chowhound seems to be more of a twentieth century phenomenon, so doesn't seem to apply in your examples. Maybe you mean something like gourmand, or something else? Read the main Chowhound page on what defines a chowhound and maybe rethink how chowhounds, like us, change history.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: E Eto

                              I'm using the word Chowhound broadly. I meant to include gourmets, gourmands, anyone who cares about food and views meals as more than a boring fuel stop done only because it's necessary to survival. So you should read my post that way.

                              And if you want an example how true Chowhounds, like us, change history, let's tip our hats to the Spanish explorers who dared to taste what to them were impossibly exotic (and for all they knew poisonous)crops in Mexico and Peru and thought "Mmmmm good! Let's bring some back to the home country!"

                              1. re: Brian S

                                i think most of your examples are flawed as far as proving your theory. these all had to do with economics -- supply and demand. not with average folks wanting a better more flavorful tomato.

                                columbus wasn't just seeking a cheaper source of pepper. he was looking to gain territory, thus power and wealth, as well as prestige for the crown under whom he sailed. ferdinand and isabella were well behind the portuguese, dutch and british whose outposts already were legion.

                                trust me, it was not the prospect of unlimited purple peruvian potatoes that brought ravages down on that part of the world.

                                1. re: hotoynoodle

                                  Columbus wasn't a fanatic chowhound who wanted pepper on his meat so badly that he set off across unknown seas to find it. But he was looking for a source of cheap pepper so that he and his backers could get rich by selling it to chowhounds, or gourmets.

                                  1. re: Brian S

                                    As much practical as gourmet: the pepper masked the stench of rotting meat. All households could get a few days more meals out of the unrefrigerated hunk of protein.