The Journey from Seeds to Tables

When America was discovered, the revolution of new plant species was very slow: potatoes, corn, beans, and tomatoes were imported, contributing to a change in diet that was not too fast but unstoppable. However, it took about three centuries.

Initially, it was the beauty of plants, flowers, and fruits, for the wonder they aroused when seen for the first time, that entered the paintings of wealthy Italian patrons. The yellow pumpkin, zucchini, cobs of corn, beans, and corn were first represented in Rome in the festoons of the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche at the Villa Farnesina, painted by Giovanni da Udine under the guidance of the genius Raphael. Essentially, about 20 years after the discovery of the Americas, these paintings featured the first true botanical catalog of the newly imported species.

Standing out in the splendid Roman Loggia are the yellow pumpkins, the primary source of sustenance for the Central American Indians for at least 10,000 years, which began to be eaten from the nutritious seeds to the pulp over the centuries.

One can recognize the corn cobs, the Mesoamerican grain of the Incas and the Maya, which at the time of the discovery of the Americas had already been selected into over 300 species. The zucchinis, round or elongated with their yellow flowers, became known in Europe as “maritime or Indian pumpkins,” but Central America had known them for centuries.
The potato, discovered by Columbus and native to the Andes, soon spread to Spain. Since it was not yet well suited to European soils, it yielded poor results and was considered unattractive and food for the poor. It was not considered very important and was even regarded as animal feed. The corn that Columbus brought back from his first voyage was indeed planted from Castile to Pannonia, but it remained a secondary food, especially for livestock.

In the “Relazione d’alcune cose della Nuova Spagna,” written by a fellow traveler of Hernan Cortes in 1556, corn is described as “a grain resembling chickpeas,” and chili pepper is likened to pepper. It took two or three centuries to practically incorporate these new foods into daily meals, attempting to align them with what was already known and consumed.

The tomato that Hernan Cortes brought back from his journeys – already cherished by the Peruvian peoples and the Aztecs, who especially in Mexico knew its sauce – was initially considered toxic and then suitable for aphrodisiac potions. When it arrived in Spain and soon in the Kingdom of Naples, a cornerstone of Charles V’s empire, it is said that the seeds gifted by Don Pedro di Toledo, Viceroy of Naples, to his daughter Eleonora, married to Cosimo I de’ Medici in Florence, were the first to be brought in a basket from the Torre del Gallo estates in 1548. Probably more as a floral tribute than as fruits to be eaten.

It took centuries for the new species to truly make it onto the table: they were first accepted for ornamental purposes, surrounded by prejudices of danger, alien to the dominant culture.

Of course, there were exceptions, but they remained confined to elite cultures and did not spread among the general population. Botanical and pharmacological research followed, and only in the end did they dominate the tables. The true explosion of the success of corn, potatoes, and tomatoes occurred only in the 18th century: according to Massimo Montanari, hunger and European population growth in the 18th century made the choice inevitable, after a couple of centuries of agricultural experimentation. Corn was then reinterpreted by farmers in the form of polenta, the staple of their diet, a very different use from that of Native Americans. With potatoes, attempts were made first to make bread from them, with not very brilliant results: the potato, in short, took longer to prove itself as a suitable food for many uses. Polenta as the main peasant food, however, brought pellagra, the dietary disease linked to the monotony of consumption, already in the early 1700s.

And if corn remained the basis of the poor diet of peasants and laborers, the misunderstood potato had a true culinary ascent: in the 19th century, its use differentiated among social classes, even appearing in the cookbooks of great chefs. The tomato found its triumph at the end of the 18th century: in the “Cuoco Galante,” Vincenzo Corrado’s treatise on cooking, the dedicated chapter begins with: “Tomatoes are a pleasure.” Various recipes follow for their consumption, but always cooked, baked, or boiled, still possessing “a certain malignancy that could be harmful.” The legendary and iconic Cirio peeled tomatoes, the first among the canning industries of the post-unification era in the South, marked the definitive triumph of the tomato. By then, both the Margherita pizza and macaroni had already entered history.