From Pizzas to Potato Fries: The Inca Origins of Modern Food

The Peculiar Past Column:

Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? How about those potato chips you had for lunch? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe our cuisine and modern luxuries.

Whether enjoying it on a night out, a relaxed night in or if you’re Prince Andrew having a Pizza Express, pizza has unrivalled popularity, especially amongst the youth. Historically accredited to bakers in Naples, a traditional pizza always features a healthy topping of tomatoes. Equally important to the students’ diet are potato chips (dipped in ketchup or, if you have taste, bbq sauce), pasta with Dolmio Bolognese sauce, and different varieties of chocolate desserts. At least, that’s what all my flatmates eat. But have we really stopped to think about the history of our food? Does it really just stop at simple English adaptations of traditional Italian dishes? Or, do we owe our modern cuisine to ancient pre-Colombian empires?


Let’s first review the empires in question: the Aztecs and the Incas. You’ve probably seen them in Horrible Histories, up on stepped pyramids, dabbling in human sacrifice, right? That’s what they’re best known for, it’s true. However, the true beauty in these past civilisations was their rich culture and ability to survive in such unlikely environments; in the high peaks of the Incan Andes and the cruel deserts of the Aztec lands, they were able to terraform their landscapes into places of bountiful harvests, even cutting ridges into mountains to create different agricultural zones on each level. Through their advanced agricultural methods, these civilisations cultivated abundant food sources, in an otherwise desolate land. The Incas were said to be so efficient in their harvests that by the early 1520s they had enough food stockpiled to feed each of their 10 million citizens for four years, without producing anything else. The Incas and Aztecs both developed equally grand road networks, allowing them to send messages and important objects over incredible stretches of land, probably more reliably than most postal workers can, and their irrigation systems were second to none. Even the proud and self-aggrandising conquistadors admitted to the excellence of the respective capitals of Cusco and Tenochtitlan, which were bigger than any city the Spanish had to offer at the time. The Mexican Aztec cities were host to huge and well-organised markets selling all manners of goods from the exotic and brilliant feathers of Birds of Paradise, in any colour imaginable, to precious stones and golden jewellery to chihuahuas. Yes, chihuahuas are Aztec. Meanwhile, the Incan empire had adopted a socialist system before it was cool. Everyone produced food which was collected by the state and spread equally to each household, in which everyone was given not one but two pet llamas to shear with the seasons, and weave clothes with. Everyone got their fair share of food, wool, and protection from the state. Pretty sophisticated for the early 1500s, right?


Growing in those beautiful peaks wasn’t just their staple crop maize. Being mostly vegetarian, they made up for the lack of meat on their buffet tables with an array of vegetables unknown to the Western world. All types of orange squash (we could argue that pumpkins and therefore jack o lanterns are owed to the pre-Columbian empires, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish), ruby red tomatoes, both varieties of potatoes, and hearty beans, all amazingly harvested in the frigid Andean peaks. Most of these vegetables quickly became the favourite ingredients of many European nations- think of Italian cuisine without tomatoes or the Irish without potatoes… 


In fact, Europeans began eating so well after Incan ingredients were introduced into their diet, particularly potatoes because of how nourishing they are and the ease with which they grow, that the population of the old world increased by one fifth in the 1700s. Think about a lecture with one fifth more students… it’s a huge difference. Now the global population had hit the billion mark. Contemporary reviews of the food include those of the famous economist Adam Smith, who claimed potatoes were of ‘nourishing quality’ and ‘peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution’- you can practically hear the excitement in his voice. The only Inca culinary tradition that didn’t quite make it to the Western world was the occasional roasted guinea pig or ‘Cuy’, but now we have them as wonderful pets instead! 


As for the Aztecs, their diet was probably a bit too much for Spaniards at the time, who didn’t really fancy eating dogs for breakfast. Though what did excite their taste buds was chocolate. While cocoa also grew in the Andes, it was the Aztecs who perfected the art of chocolate, originally spicing it with chilli. It was so popular that cocoa became a form of currency in their civilisation; four cocoa beans could earn you a pumpkin in a Tenochtitlan marketplace. The Spanish ate it up, literally. Infamous conquistador Hernan Cortes even claimed the stuff could allow someone to ‘walk for a whole day without food’. Bold claim there, buddy. While cocoa was kept a secret for a while, it eventually found its popularity around Europe, where they replaced the chilli for sugar and frequently mixed it with cinnamon and nutmeg. In England, the aristocracy began to enjoy ‘Chocolate Houses’ from the 1650s onwards, which sounds like something from Hansel and Gretel but was just a place where the rich and famous sat down to enjoy bitter hot chocolate and socialise. Eventually, they added milk to it and naturally found it a lot sweeter, allowing the beverage to gain popularity. Once the huge taxes were lifted from cocoa, everyone started to experience the magic of chocolate, which was once a sacred food in Mesoamerica. 


So in reality, we should ask, what don’t we owe to the Aztec and Incan empires? Their culinary traditions have had such a huge impact on both the Renaissance period and modern diets, and we completely ignore that fact. So next time you have a post-breakdown bite of chocolate or a sneaky ‘Two for Tuesday’ pizza with your flatmates, keep those forgotten empires in mind; they’re so much more than distant conquered kingdoms.

CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion of the Incan empire. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing the cello and her previous residence in five different countries.


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