Sandy Garson stirs a Punjabi-style black-eyed peas dish Friday in her kitchen in Bath. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

AUBURN — Food is the common thread of human history, for better or worse.

Getting good, favored food inspired the spice trade, genocides and invasions, food historian Sandy Garson of Bath said in a recent talk at the Auburn Public Library.

Sandy Garson stirs cilantro into Punjabi-style black-eyed peas dish she was making Friday in her kitchen in Bath. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“The Indian Kitchen: Crossroads of Culture,” was presented in partnership with L-A Senior College.

Garson, 79, has been a food historian for 32 years. She is a former caterer and food entrepreneur who has published many articles and two cookbooks, one award-winning. She is now giving talks on “Food: The Secret Sauce of History,” and with a trio she formed called The Savvy Palates, gives three one-hour talks titled “The Geography of Groceries.”

As Nana Chef, she taught American children to cook. She helped establish a restaurant in Mongolia, taught cooking skills in Nepal, and cooked at a Buddhist monastery in Canada. She has cooked and eaten in India.

“History is the illustrated and mapped pursuit of food,” she said in her presentation at the library.

Advertisement

“We as humans will even fight and kill in that pursuit,” she said. “Just think banana republics, the opium war, or the whole slave trade set up to grow sugar. In some of the latest news, the craze for palm oil is causing murder and political chaos in Honduras.”

Food is the root of all history, including that of Europeans in the Americas, Garson said.

“It was the new Spanish crown’s greedy wish in 1492 to get to India faster and monopolize the pepper trade that put Christopher Columbus on the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria looking for a shortcut,” she said.

Peppercorns, dried berries that grow on the Malabar Coast in southern India, were a hot commodity (so to speak), but the vines are resistant to transplant, Garson said.

Getting black pepper meant going to India, and that’s what traders did.

“Because for one thing, the black peppercorn has antibiotic properties,” Garson said. Also, “the chemicals of this dried berry encourage the production of hydrochloric acid, which is the main component of the gastric acid that breaks down food. In other words, black pepper makes meat easier to digest.”

Advertisement

Tasty foods discovered far from home often were carried back in some form: “the original takeout,” Garson said.

“That is the story of the spice routes, wheat (that) Spanish missionaries brought to the Americas to make communion wafers, apples in Europe, and all the tea in China,” she said.

But when desired food could not easily be carried away and transplanted, it had to be taken by conquest, she said.

Sandy Garson with some of her Indian dishes Friday in her kitchen in Bath. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“Getting Spanish olive oil began the Roman Empire,” she said. “To feed its people, the Greek Empire extended to the fertile soils of Sicily and Tunisia. Our own American empire began with the fuss over bananas.

“The Dutch committed genocide for nutmeg; the British committed it to get at the cod fish here on our shores — which is the true founding story of our country.

“Hitler invaded eastern Europe, Ukraine and northern Europe for what he called ‘lebensraum,’ or ‘living space’ by which he meant wheat, dairy and other food for the German people.”

Advertisement

Food history is colored by geography, where food is located, Garson said.

“Some places have it all, others very little and are obliged to get it from somewhere else,” she said. “We in Maine ship lobsters to Saudi Arabia and California and we are shipped quinoa, which only grows easily in the high mountains of Bolivia.”

The food network is “enormous and nonstop and as old as time,” Garson said.

“India’s place in it as a land of plenty has not been as an importer so much as an exporter — all that basmati rice, ginger, coconuts, tamarind and onions. It is now a major exporter of peanuts, which originated in South America.”

Immigration and colonization also had big impacts on the food map.

For example, chicken tikka is an Indian dish that was adapted for the British by adding masala, Garson said. The sauce was added “to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”

Advertisement

Mulligatawny soup is another example, she said.

“The name combines the Tamil words for black pepper and water because originally mulligatawny was a flavored broth that fed the poor of Sri Lanka and India’s deep south.

The Brits found this broth “delightful,” but they were used to hearty soup, so Indian cooks added chicken and vegetables, Garson said.

Some ingredients and home made creations in Sandy Garson’s kitchen in Bath. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“The resulting dish is described as Anglo-Indian,” she said. “Adaptation like this also gave Americans Chinese chop suey, General Tso’s chicken and Italian spaghetti with meat balls.”

So, remember this when you sit down to eat.

And don’t forget the black pepper.

Silver Linings is a monthly feature focused on elders in our community, their interests and the issues that affect them. If you have an idea for a Silver Linings story, please email Karen Kreworuka at kkreworuka@sunjournal.com

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story