Thinking of the history of food again, there have been two interesting articles in The New Yorker recently. In the August 6th issue, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the American bee industry (who knew?) in Stung: Where Have all the Bees Gone? It’s about the search to find both the disease that’s decimating the American bee population and its cause. The disease seems to be an apian form of AIDS. I understand that it’s not uncommon for diseases to jump species (I have a friend whose cat had feline AIDS for years), but there is something about that I find scary. In the course of the article she also mentions that in the past ten years, hybrid honeybees have taken over. It isn’t that there aren’t a lot of North American honeybees left- there aren’t any. I understand that over time species evolve and mutate, be they insects or plants. I doubt we’re eating the same rye that Charles Dickens did. But the eradication of that common a species that quickly is troubling to me.
This week’s issue has an article by John Seabrook about seeds- Sowing for Apocalypse: The Quest for a Global Seed Bank. Seabrook covers a lot of ground, and history. He identifies which plants from the Old World were brought by Columbus (including wheat, onions, citrus, melons, radishes, sugarcane, grapes and olives). The seeds of plants that Columbus took back to Spain were corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, pineapples and sweet potatoes. Ah, old Cincinnatus’ dining options have exploded!
Though Seabrook is largely concerned with current efforts to preserve seeds, he manages to work in three pretty cool facts. One is that “most of the coffee that grows in Latin America today traces its ancestry to a single coffee plant from Java that was taken to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden in 1706.” Another is that much of what Columbus took back to Spain with him originated in Central and South America, not North. North America offered “blueberries, cranberries and a type of sunflower.” All good things, but not much of a basis for cuisine. The third fact is that Thomas Jefferson “smuggled rice seeds out of Italy by sewing them into his coat”. What would the U.S.D.A. make of that today?