A tasty history of the Southwest

  • Gardens of New Spain

  If you think fusion food was something California chefs cooked up in the 1980s, you’re off by a couple of centuries.

Gardens of New Spain opens in 1492, the year Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand kicked the Moors out of Spain. The Moors fled, but they had already left an indelible mark on Iberian cuisine: The soldiers who had settled in Spain in the 8th century brought lemons, sugarcane, durum wheat and rice from Syria, Persia and the lands beyond — and many of those foods headed across the Atlantic with Columbus.

Meanwhile, in the desert Southwest, native cuisine was undergoing its own kind of fusion as American Indians began adapting the corns-beans-and-squash diet from Mexico to their own harsh environment. In one nearly miraculous transformation, the Hopi turned corn — a Mexican native originally grown where 30 inches of rain fall each year — into a desert survivor that could thrive on six inches of rain a year by driving its main root eight feet into the ground to reach moisture. After the Spanish touched down in the Caribbean and pushed their way into the Southwest, what Dunmire calls a "cultural sublimation" took place. Old World onions found a place in native dishes, wheat could be substituted for corn in tortillas, and the chile, which the Spaniards packed along as they made their way up from Mexico, became the symbol of the Southwest.

Those new introductions added diversity, and dramatically increased productivity in native gardens by adding winter crops to the growing cycle: "Cold-hardy Mediterranean plants such as wheat, garlic, onions, lettuce, and peas could be sown in late fall or winter, then harvested long before corn or beans were ready to pick, in effect nearly doubling the season for fresh produce."

Gardens of New Spain covers so much territory that it’s sometimes difficult to digest everything, but the book is certain to make you look at your next meal differently.

Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America
William W. Dunmire, 392 pages, hardcover, $65.00, softcover, $24.95: University of Texas Press, 2004.

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