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Monday, 18 February 2013

FCC: Food and a (Brief) Gastronomic History of Spain


Yesterday, I returned from my last PossePlus Retreat; and with all of the logistical planning this past week for the PPR, I haven't been able to get to writing my recap of this past Wednesday's 16th module of our Food and Culture Colloquium. And so, here we go!


For this week's module, our small group of attendees welcomed Associate Provost Susan Garcia who very eloquently spoke about the gastronomic history and culture of medieval and early modern Spain. While Spain's agriculture continues to be shaped by the country's geography, it's own biodiversity and food culture has been arguably shaped even more so by two periods (divided explicitly by the year 1492) which I have chosen to highlight in this post: La Convivencia and the Columbian Exchange.


The history of Spain may be divided into many segments (Susan noted and discussed at least six), but as even contemporary convivencia ideologists summarise, the time frame in question roughly refers to the 8th century and the more or less peaceful coexistence of Christians, Jews and Muslims in Spain until the 15th century when the re-Christianisation of Spain pushed Jews and Muslims out of the country, a timing which coincides with Columbus's discovery of the new world.


To start us on our journey, Susan shared with us the above slide which includes many "traditional" Spanish foods, with the suggestion that by the end of her presentation, these foods would be rearranged, taking into account which of these present-day staples were made possible by exchange and conquest.


Prior to Phoenecian and Greek colonialisation throughout Spain, the Iberian peninsula was without the present day staples of garbanzos, grapevines, wheat and olive trees--staples of the original Mediterranean diet, the last three of which are also ingredients of three culinary markers of civilisation (i.e., wine, bread and olive oil). It's important to note that at this point, there were no pigs (a conflict with the Morcilla and especially the Jamón Ibérico which both scream Spain). After the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans (c. 70 BCE), the second diaspora brought Jews to Spain. And with this diaspora came a Jewish gastronomy outlined in the Kashrut (drawn from Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Of course, in order to maintain one's religious, Jewish identity it was necessary to apply the food laws to the Spanish culinary culture of the time; such laws then would impact the types of meat that could be consumed (further disallowing pig from one's diet), how meat should be prepared (i.e., Kasher/Kosher).


Following the downfall of Rome and Roman Hispania (200 BCE-400 AD), a period that saw the introduction of rudimentary agriculture and the use of yeast via fermentation, the Visigoths (who maintained the generally Christian influence throughout Hispania) made their way throughout France and Spain, altering the way (and with whom) people ate.


By the end of Visigothic (mainly Catholic) rule (8th century), Arabic populations arrived (officially, their invasion took place in 711), bringing with them sugar, saffron and other spices, as well as new agricultural methods such as terraced land, irrigation and water wheels to Spain. Islamic influence, it's worth noting, also paralleled to an extent Jewish dietary restrictions and techniques as outlined in the Qur'an, e.g., blood and pork as forbidden (again, no morcilla) and Halal. By contrast, Christians living in Spain at this time began to consume pork, as noted in St. Isidore of Seville's (560-636) The Etymologies (originally written in Latin), where he apparently talks about boar (Iberian pig) and the use of local ingredients, as well as a movement from the focus on ostentatious eating and refinement to the necessity of nutrition.


In spite of their religious differences, for nearly 800 years, Christians, Jews and Muslims continued to learn and grow from one another, contributing to an overarching "Spanish" gastronomy (and the general calm of the convivencia which was met with "cooperation and resistance"). Indeed, all three religions shared (and still do share) many culinary customs if only officially through a more or less shared calendar (ironically, last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday), abiding by their own dietary restrictions without necessarily imposing specifically religious and culinary traditions on everyone else. However, over time, Christian claims to Spanish land grew stronger and stronger, and with greater geographic presence came the role of food as a visible identifier for religious identity.


Throughout this extended period of the Christian Reconquest (at which time hostels and hospitals grew alongside the importance of pilgrimages and early tourism throughout Spain), Jews and Moslems were told to either convert to Christianity or move out. And as Christians clearly identified with food by this point in time, the resistance to religious assimilation (i.e., an attack on one's identities) made it noticeably clear who fully converted and who didn't. In 1492, Jews were officially expelled from Spain, a few months after the "successful" end to the reconquest, marked in particular by the fall of Granada on the 2nd of January. With the surrendering of the last Moorish kingdom (i.e., Granada), Muslims were presented with the choice of either leaving or forcibly/voluntarily converting to Christianity. Those who converted were called Moriscos; after waves of persecution à la The Spanish Inquisition (Islamic culture and religion continued to persist among the converted), Moriscos were expelled in 1609.


In that same year, Columbus did not arrive in Japan and instead finds himself in the Americas, eventually introducing a host of a new ingredients to Spain's gastronomy (and of course introducing Spanish gastronomy to Americas, especially with the introduction of pork). The Columbian Exchange, as others (1, 2, 3) have noted, was the single most important shift in the global culinary story (if not simply the most important year in modern world history), with the introduction of new ingredients (and diseases) to each hemisphere.


And without the Exchange, and without the religious shifts and influences throughout Spain's history, Spain would be without it's Tortilla Española (no potatoes until the discovery of the New World) or its chorizo (paprika came from the New World and were part of the Exchange, as well), and neither paella nor blood sausage were consumed until the Reconquest (when Arabs brought the saffron and rice), and only then by Christians. Indeed, both the convivencia and the Columbian Exchange were important both within and outside of Spain.


As Susan concluded, and as I'd like to conclude here, I wonder if all of this food exchange--or if only the convivencia was nothing more than a utopia. In our multicultural society, can we truly coexist? And to what extent can our culinary cultures jive and blend harmoniously--without losing our identities?

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our colloquium sessions, click here.

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