Chili Pepper, from Mexico to Europe: Food, Imaginary and Cultural Identity
introduction In Mexico, chili peppers are everywhere, in markets, food stalls, industrial food, in all dishes, even children’s candies, as they are eaten from an early age. The chili flavor is the main characteristic of Mexican cooking. In the Americas, chili pepper is used most in Mexico. Several speciesof chili pepper are grown in the Americas, but only the Mexican species, Capsicum annuum, was introduced in Europe, where its mild and fleshy varieties are known as bell peppers. This plant was immediately successful. Unlike the tomato, often perceived as poisonous, the chili pepper started being cultivated in many areas of Southern Europe soon after its introduction. Chili peppers crossed theAtlantic from Mexico to Europe, but not with the women who were holders of its culinary knowledge. So, how was the chili pepper integrated in the food habits, categories and representations of the societies where it was adopted? Were its cooking ways similar to the Mexican ones? How did the Europeans proceed? Did they cook the chili pepper according to their local culinary techniques? Did they importMexican food processing? Or did they innovate? Is it possible to compare their representations of this plant with the ones of its native country?1
1. This paper is based on bibliographical data and on a research study of food carried out over the span of twenty years in the Mixtec Highlands (State of Oaxaca) and other parts of Mexico (1984-2004), as well as short fieldworks on chili pepperproduction and consumption performed in Hungary (Budapest and Kalocsa, August 1991, with the linguistic help of Annamária Lammel), Spain (Andalusia and Murcia, October 1992) and France (Basque Country, May 2005, October 2006). Some of the ideas included here were approached in a previous article dealing with the chili
FOOD, IMAGINARIES AND CULTURAL FRONTIERS ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF HELEN MACBETHintroduction of chili pepper in europe Christopher Columbus is supposed to have brought to Spain the first samples of chili pepper. As Amazonian species (C. chinense and frutescens) are more likely to have been the ones cultivated in the West Indies at that time (Heiser 1976), Capsicum annuum may in fact have been brought a few years later from Mexico or Central America. Spain was of course thechili pepper’s first point of arrival in Europe. According to Long (1986; 1992), based on Braudel (1949), it became widespread in this continent through several routes controlled by two empires, Charles V’s in Western Europe (with sea routes established by the Catalans between Spain, Italy and the Middle East) and the Ottoman empire (expanding in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean as well asin the Balkans, up to Hungary).2 Long (1986) distinguished several phases in chili pepper adoption in Europe. Chili pepper was first taken to botanical and aristocrats’ gardens as an ornamental plant or a curiosity (even in cold countries such as England or Germany) and was first used as medicine, but after a hundred years it stopped attracting elites (Long 1992). In the meantime, in the sixteenthcentury, soon after its introduction, Spanish farmers started growing it in their gardens (Monardes 1565-74) and using it as a spice. Peppers quickly reached regions of Southern Italy such as Calabria (Teti 1995),3 were known in Southwestern France in the seventeenth century (Prévost 1655; Sabban 1986; Barrau 1991) and arrived in Hungary from the Balkans in the early eighteenth century (Kisbán1989). They expanded all over Southern Europe, from Spain to Bul-
pepper and tomato (Katz 1992). Thanks are due to farmers and consumers of chili pepper in the regions where fieldwork was done, as well as to Janet Long (Mexico), Eszter Kisbán, Maria Molnár, Agota Nagy-Wohl (Budapest), Concepción Obón, Diego Rivera (Murcia), Françoise Aubaile-Sallenave, Jacques Barrau (†), Laurence...
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