All around the immense geography of planet Earth, communities have their own distinctive ways of thinking about and of handling food. The word gastronomy here refers to the entire process of preparing food that is recognized as good in a particular setting. Some might think that understanding a region’s gastronomy is merely a matter of making a list of traditional dishes. In the case of the Caribbean, some could suggest that it would be best to make a list of dishes by island or territory. But here we turn our efforts to recreating the historical and economic conditions that led to the creation of Caribbean gastronomy. Toward that end, we will choose, from among a huge number of influences, the ones that enable us to form a narrative about the ingredients that eventually became essential parts of food preparation from Barbados to Jamaica and from Belize to Brazil, whether they developed in the Caribbean or arrived from elsewhere.
Before the arrival of the Europeans to the Caribbean region, the indigenous inhabitants had their own ways and specific products that they used for cooking. Before 1492, corn, cacao, various peppers, cassava, sweet potato, annatto and vanilla, among other ingredients, were common in the Caribbean. They also ate meat, in the form of various land animals and birds and fish. They ground their grains and roasted meats. From these important beginnings, Caribbean gastronomy developed the diversity it would later display.
When the Europeans arrived in the Caribbean after 1492, the region became a strategic international zone. The powerful economic centers of Europe created and imposed divisions, partitioning the planet (though not in absolute terms) into producing zones and consuming zones. Between 1492 and 1497, the three maritime regions that were part of this division were Europe, the West Indies (the Caribbean) and Africa. In those years, however, the system was just beginning and was not in full operation. In 1498, when Bartolome Diaz reached the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa by sea, and in 1499, with the circumnavigation of Africa and the arrival in the Middle East and India of Vasco da Gama, the international system was able, for the first time, to establish important and solid trade links between the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano solidified these links with the first circumnavigation of the world, completed in 1522.
As all of these regions became more engaged with each other, generally through European traders, it became clear that products, not just people, were traveling. Many of the spices that came from various sites in the Caribbean had already become known in Europe as a result of the trade caravans from the east. Maritime transportation was much faster, however, and made the impact on various parts of the planet, where goods were shipped, more constant. By the 16th century, the Caribbean, which already had its own products, came into contact with other complementary products, such as plantains, yams, palm oil, olive oil, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, bay leaf, cloves, saffron, garlic, onions, lemons, coconut, cumin, tamarind, coffee and nutmeg, among many others. At the same time, animals that had not been known before, such as pigs, chickens, cattle, goats and sheep, came to the Caribbean as a result of the trade among regions. All of the above led to the region having an extremely varied range of ingredients with which to develop high quality and quantities of foods and cooking methods that would come to be considered traditional dishes, although at first they were new.
From the 15th century to our times, the Caribbean has been and continues to be a destination where people from various parts of the planet arrive and settle. Most of these migrations were forced. Few people freely decided to come and live in the region. Maybe that’s why many of them tried to recreate the cultural and gastronomical ways of their places of origin, with the goal of making their lives less difficult in a setting that was new to them in more ways than one. Gradually, what began as an effort by migrants to preserve elements of their origins was transformed by their descendants, who were not so clear on how things were done in the countries their ancestors came from. The descendants of these “originals” (Europeans, Africans, Indians and Chinese, among others) gave rise to a process that is essential for understanding Caribbean gastronomy: “creolization.” This was the process that allowed the Caribbean to develop distinctive cultural ways in various areas. Many may have been products that arrived from other parts of the world. Without creolization, none of these would have served, and none serves by itself, to identify the Caribbean with certain kinds of food or certain ways of cooking.
So what exactly does creolization mean? The concept is a process that has been defined by various disciplines. In this text, however, it will be defined based on certain characteristics, which should not be considered the only ones possible. The first of these is appropriation.
The act of creolization, or making something local, means giving a local sense to something that has come from somewhere else. Something that was originally of foreign origin is seized symbolically and incorporated into a new and specific context. In this sense, the various spices, fruits, tubers and ways of cooking that came to the Caribbean over the centuries were gradually accepted and came to be seen as useful for preparing food, clashing with those that were already present. Very different foods arose from these encounters. In this context, appropriation can be considered the incorporation of elements from abroad into the daily lives of various Caribbean societies.
Appropriation must be considered alongside interpretation, another essential part of the process of creolization. It is easy to see that culinary products that came from various parts of the planet had complex histories that could tell the stories of how other populations had appropriated them. Ingredients such as pepper, bay leaf and cinnamon, for example, were seen as having certain uses, but those uses were never definitive. That’s why in Puerto Rico cinnamon is used mainly for desserts while in parts of Mexico it is used as a condiment for foods such as spicy pork sausages. The Caribbean populations, with the arrival of foreign ingredients, began a long and endless process of interpreting those elements and their uses. What was used for certain things in some places would be used in the Caribbean in ways that had never been imagined in its place of origin. Interpretation, in this sense, implies that new uses for spices and other products were devised through acts of creativity. For example, written accounts from the time show that what became customary in the Caribbean was far from what was considered the correct ways to use ingredients in cooking. Specifically, some Europeans were shocked that a stew in which tubers were mixed with various kinds of meat was made in the Caribbean. This shows that one of the gastronomic characteristics of the Caribbean has been the combination of ingredients that in their original settings were cooked separately. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a Dominican or Puerto Rican sancocho or a Cuban ajiaco made an impression on more than one foreigner.
This leads to the third important aspect of creolization: establishing a new culinary syntax. In a language, syntax refers to those rules that determine the appropriate ways of combining words to effectively transmit a message. To a certain degree, the various academies of languages establish the criteria for how syntax works. Although these criteria determine the “correct” or “educated” forms of the language, which does not mean that only the “correct” forms as imposed by the authorities will work in people’s daily lives. There are people who never study grammar but who speak, write and communicate. These can be called the popular uses of the language. In the same way, there are distinctions between haute cuisine and traditional or popular cuisine. To come to a historical description of Caribbean gastronomy, certain pieces of information have to be considered.
Since the late 15th century, but especially since the beginning of the 16th century, the Caribbean has been seen as a region to be exploited economically. This means that most of the people who came to the region did so as subordinates. In other words, they were subject to the systems of exploitation and the production of wealth. Living in this disadvantaged condition, most people dedicated themselves just to survival. In this process of survival, the various gastronomies being formed incorporated elements in ways that were not necessarily “educated” or “authorized.” Often unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, food preparation was creolized in the measure in which different combinations of ingredients were established that were far from the intended uses in the power centers in Europe, which were often reproduced in miniature in the European colonies of the Caribbean. Forms considered “correct” in culinary terms were disrupted, not to generate “corrupt” ways of using ingredients, but rather to give them new identities in the lives of millions of people. Caribbean gastronomy became a collection of varied ways of preparing food that were generally developed in the daily lives of the lower classes. The hegemonic sectors, those that exercised societal control, would eventually adopt these gastronomic forms and make them “traditional food.” This helped create national identities that helped achieve certain specific political agendas, among them independence. From Cajun style crawfish in New Orleans, to the rice and beans of Costa Rica, putting these foods in the historical context of their particular settings shows that each dish has its own process of creolization.
Author: Dr. José Alberto Cabán Torres
Published: February 21, 2012.
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