Botanical Imperialism Mini-Feast
The desire for spices, medicines, and crops and the subsequent movement of plants around the globe has been both a cause and a consequence of imperial expansion. The impact that plants and their products have had on human political history continues to drive the people and governments of more developed nations to subjugate the people and governments of other, less developed nations, usually with disastrous results.
The term botanical imperialism was inspired by the term “ecological imperialism”, which was first coined by writer/professor Alfred J. Crosby in his 1986 book by that title. In 2009, I co-taught a course at Lake Forest College with Dr. Glenn Adelson called Botanical Imperialism. This opened my eyes to the complex global histories of everyday foods and plants. I have distilled some of those stories, as well as many others, into this Mini-Feast for Santa Cruz Waves.
I want to extend a special thank you to Soif and both Chef Mark Denham and Manager Alyssa Twelker for making this feast a reality! Join us on March 28 for the opening night of this two-week mini feast experience.
– Liz Birnbaum
Cocktail: The Smuggler’s Fortune
Key Ingredients and Stories: Mulberry & the legend about a silk princess. Tea & the 19th century plant explorer Robert Fortune. Bombay Sapphire Gin & the British Raj.
The Silkworm, that lives solely on mulberry leaves, was first domesticated in China about 5,000 years ago. Chinese silk was traded all the way to the Roman Empire. The secret of how to make silk was so guarded, that it was a fatal risk to share it. So now, we examine the story of the Silk Princess. This tale begins in mythical time:
According to legend, a princess from China was once told that she would be marrying a ruler from the neighboring kingdom of Khotan. She was sad to leave China because she loved fresh fine silks, and China was the only producer of silk in the world. A grove of mulberry trees grew in her yard to produce for her the finest fresh silks from the silkworms, who only ate the tree’s leaves. China closely guarded the secret of silk making, and it would not allow outsiders to learn the secrets to take either silkworms nor mulberry seeds out of the country. To do so was punishable by death. So, as the princess went to marry the King of Khotan, she crossed the Chinese border with her caravan. At the border, she was stopped. Guards searched her whole entourage and person, but they did not dare touch her hair. Woven within her headdress were mulberry seeds and silkworm cocoons. Due to the legendary silk princess (Eve much?) who became a symbol of the taboo against smuggling, China’s trade position was weakened.
Another smuggler arrives in China, the 1850s, when the venerable British institute of Kew Gardens sent a man with a possibly prophetic name (or an aptronym, if you are a word nerd like me) to seek the secrets of tea production in China. His name: Robert Fortune.
Fortune travelled to some areas of China that had seldom been visited by Europeans, and was the first westerner to realize that green tea and black tea came from the same plant, and he learned the secrets of Chinese tea production by traveling far-beyond the allowed treaty port areas, into the interior of China. This kind of travel was forbidden for Westerners at the time. After learning many things, and recruiting some Chinese citizens to help him out, he used Wardian Cases (mini greenhouses) to transport tea plants, and also many many tea seeds out of China and into India, which was, at the time, a British territory. If it weren’t for this great tea heist, we would not have teas such as Darjeeling or Assam, today. It was indeed a Fortune that was dumped at the ports during the Boston Tea Party.
Bombay Sapphire Gin.
This spirit pulls it all together. Bombay Sapphire, whose name relates to the city of Bombay (modern Mumbai), and the precious Star of Bombay Sapphire, a blue crystal from Sri Lanka. Another sapphire, the stuart sapphire, is part of the British Crown Jewels, so overall this gin has a deeply Imperial history to tell. The cocktail was invented by the British East India Company in India. In tropical regions such as India, malaria was a stubborn problem for an Imperial appetite. But in the 1700s quinine was discovered (in South America), and it was found that it could be used to prevent and treat malaria. Since the quinine was very bitter, British officers in India took to adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime and gin to the quinine in the 19th Century. This was the start to the Gin and Tonic as we know it. Also, the soldiers were already given a gin ration! This is why the brand Bombay Sapphire is so-named. The gin itself tells the story of the British rule of India (AKA the British Raj), and just as an added bonus…Queen Victoria, the proudly crowned Empress of India (crowned 1876), has her image on the front of the Bombay Sapphire bottle. At one time, almost 1/3 of the world’s land mass was under British Rule so that the sun never set on the British Empire. Gin itself is derived from almond, lemon peel, licorice, juniper berries, orris root, angelica, coriander, cassia, and grains of paradise, all derived from the spice trade.
Main Dish: The Global Explorer
Key Ingredients and Stories: Treasures of Erech & exploring the Ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk through one of the oldest recipes. Black Pepper & Global spice trade and demanded tributes for this expensive spice. Citrus & Captain Cook and tales of scurvy on the high seas.
Treasures of Erech.
A recipe adapted from the Archives of Erech, adding citrus and black pepper to illuminate the history of exploration, and again to explore ourselves by reviving elements from this ancient dish. The Silk Road conjures up images of colonial traders walking across the desert, across what we know today as the Middle East but what was then Mesopotamia. It was here that a sweet medicinal herb of licorice and prized citrus was grown in the city of Uruk. For a place so dry in climate, they were blessed with potency of flavor due to the lack of water. Seasonal flooding was viewed as a gift. Today, their methods have been adapted into highly popular dry farming methods resulting in pique flavor produce.
Ubiquitous today in pantries across the globe, it gives no hint of the fierce warfare and empire-building that marked its past… but the fruits of the Piper nigrum vine from the Indian Malabar Coast were once ounce for ounce the same price as gold. In fact, when the Goths sacked the city of Rome in 400 AD, they demanded a tribute of pepper. And, the “discovery” of our own country and the colonial and imperial acts that followed are in part due to black pepper too…Columbus was indeed seeking the spice islands, and black pepper was a chief motivator in his and many other travels.
Like each of these ingredients, there is enough for a whole library of books on the history of citrus. But for today, we will focus on its role in warding off scurvy. Scurvy was known as “the plague of the sea” which killed millions of sailors on their voyages….more than shipwrecks, piracy, storms, and disasters combined. Many of those voyages were aimed at Imperial campaigns, and very often aimed at uncovering new botanical curiosities, including plants and food, in their travel. Amazingly, the answer to warding off scurvy was in citrus and its compound: ascorbic acid. Even the famous Captain Cook experimented with ideas to combat scurvy, including sauerkraut, carrot marmalade, and orange and lemon juices, all of which were effective treatments! It was in realizing how to ward off scurvy in their sailors that the Imperial empires had one less hurdle in their way for conquest.
Dessert: The Imperious Imperialist
Key Ingredients and Stories: Vanilla & the island of Bourbon. Honey & the great women who ruled. Breadcrumbs & the role food plays in identity. This dessert is presented as a floating island to conjure the island of Bourbon, which is key to the story of vanilla.
The vanilla bean comes from an orchid native to Mexico which blooms only for a few hours, and amazingly, it is only pollinated by a small bee, the melipona. So if vanilla is only pollinated by that, how does vanilla get to be popular at all? The answer lies in botanical imperial competition at its finest... Spain had a corner on the market, but Dutch and French botanists were working on getting vanilla to produce in tropical countries controlled by their empires. On the Island of Bourbon (sound familiar... "Bourbon vanilla"?), one day, a 12 year old slave boy figured out what all the men could not. He worked out a way using a small stick to pollinate the orchid. His name was Edmond Albius. Today, all vanilla beans are still hand-pollinated, and we would not have vanilla from Tahiti, Madagascar, or elsewhere, if it weren’t for Edmond Albius' discovery.
Today, we describe powerful women among us as a Queen Bee or recently "Kween." It is due to a series of royal Bees, most notably Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, that the British Empire evolved into a reigning world power. Honeycombs are metaphors of empires themselves. They are matriarchal, led by Queens with all the worker bees beneath them working to serve them Each species of bee is like an empire, colonizing hives all around a said territory. The bees of England stung but Melipona, vanilla’s pollinator is stingless, and thus could not defend herself against exploitation. In addition, honey itself is responsible for giving life to the spices and plants which it pollinated whether through preservation or sweetening.
Thomas Gage, a rare seventeenth-century English visitor to New Spain, observed an unusual ritual in Chiapas. Gentlemen draped themselves casually in their doorways each afternoon "to see and to be seen, and there for half an hour will they stand shaking off the crumbs of bread from their clothes." Gage ridiculed these "presumptuous and arrogant" These preening dandies tell us much about the racial tensions that continued to swirl around food throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. The fundamental premise of colonial society was the difference accentuated between European conquerors and their Indian subjects. That the Creole gentlemen of Chiapas distinguished themselves from the Native American "people of corn" by eating, or pretending to eat, wheat bread suggests how crucial food was to the ethnic and class identity of New Spain.
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