THE ORIGINS

THE PRE-COLUMBIAN GOURMET CUISINE

By Marcio Veloz Maggiolo

Every culture shows preference for one type of food, which considers better than some others, and varies along with the complexities of society. The word “gourmet”, of French origin, can be considered in the Spanish language as a person whom has a refined or discriminating taste in the art of food and food preparation. The chroniclers of the Indies observed some forms of nourishment that were only part of the caciques’ diet, and probably overlooked some others.
When the Spaniards arrived in the Antilles, the most popular and cherished meat was the meat from the iguana. That meat, was in fact, the food offered at the banquet honoring Nicolas de Ovando at Jaragua, according to Fernandez de Oviedo. As a matter of fact, iguana eggs were extracted from the animal and consumed as an exquisite dish by the descendants of the Venezuelan Arawak.
Event though iguana was not appealing to the colonizers as an animal, its meat became irresistible. Many chronicles point out how the iguana and turtle meat were smoked for their conservation. Besides iguana meat, some fruits had that characteristic flavor that made Oviedo cite “mamey turned out to be better than any of the fruits of Spain”.
On the other hand, the caciques used a special bread called “xabaxao” which was a type of cassava bread consisting of a soft dough like the ones we currently find in the supermarkets. It is clear that the variety of cassava bread that we taste today are the product of the millenary tradition, which began before 2500 BC in the upper Orinoco. The cassava bread has maintained its importance on the island of Santo Domingo, and in the East of Venezuela as well as among the so-called “black Caribs” of Central America. Currently, the variety of cassava bread that exhibits the Dominican culture exceeds the one of Taino production.
The wide variety of cassava bread ranges from the ones stuffed with sweets to the cassava smeared with flavor, like garlic or oregano; cassava rolls (another variant) used in sancocho are an invention of the Dominicans. In short, cassava bread has reached its Antillean stability in our country.
The caciques used to eat iguanas and xabaxao, and its seasoning was very simple. For instance, they put different types of hot peppers to boil, resulting in a soup where the native chiefs dipped the cassava bread into. In the beginning, said eating habits were not acceptable by the Spaniards, who were used to a different kind of diet. However, by 1500 the settlers became acclimated to consume what caciques ate including cassava bread. As a result, large plantations of yucca started to grow at the east of the Ozama River, thanks to Bartholomew Columbus.
Later on, the settlers adapted to live in the wild, so they ended up eating monkeys, snakes, tapirs and wild animals such as the so-called chigüire -an aquatic rodent of tasty meats. Nevertheless, iguana was their favorite dish due to its chicken look-alike flavor. They also learned from the Indians to eat the iguana eggs, which were described as tender and more “leathery” than turtle eggs.
Even though there is no evidence in the chronicles, the manatee meat must have been gourmet raw material. There are several archaeological findings that associate manatees with certain chain of ritual actions. Their bones were used to make spatulas, amulets, inhalers for hallucinogenic powders, and for other religious objects.
In most Taíno places the manatee seemed to have been used as raw material of a ritualized industry. According to a few citations the manatees’ skeleton was used almost entirely for sacramental purposes. There is only this place in Puerto Plata called El Perenal, where a complete head of a manatee pigeon was found. If the bones were ritually used, the meat must have been owned by caciques and nitaínos.
Pineapple was also a commercial crop. The Indians of Puerto Rico transported it to the other Antilles. The Caribs knew it and seem to have dispersed it through the Lesser Antilles.
The word ¨mabí¨ seems to be of Antillean origin and refers to the drink with the same name. Among the Caribs, the word “Maby” was used for a sweet potato drink and the tuber sugar was the basis of its own fermentation. There is no clear information on when that term was used for the first time on the Island of Santo Domingo. However, among the Dominicans it seems to come from a Caribbean term. French chroniclers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mentioned mabí in their narratives. But on the island of Santo Domingo the drink refers to the ferment of the vine called “bejuco de indio”, which is none other than scientifically known as Colubrina.
Although it is a drink of indigenous origin, there are no precise data on its pre-Columbian use in Dominican soil, although there is evidence about sweet potatoes and cassava bread in the other Antilles.
The current European “gourmets” consider the land snails (escargots) as delicacies. The Europe of the last century included them as a delicious entry into the menu of the best French restaurants. The same goes for the so-called “fruits de mer”, mainly with sea urchins. For the Antillean Indians, the fruits of the sea were indeed very important. In Juan Dolio, It has been found remains of sea urchins miraculously preserved inside wastewalkers in which the main meals seemed to be the sea and the land crab. If escargots are splendid for the European food, for the Tainos were daily food. There is evidence of large consumption of two types of snails similar to and larger than European escargots: the so-called Caracolus excelens, and the genus known as Polydontes. The Indians of eastern Cuba and western Puerto Rico were also great consumers of these snails.
Fermented corn and yucca led to beer and spirit beverages with high degrees of alcohol in the whole Antilles territory. The areitos (ceremonial festivities) sometimes ended up in a repeated use of alcohol which resulted in collective inebriation.
The chronicles of Venezuela, Colombia and other places in which the jungle societies predominated, report several types of drinks, some of which were only dedicated to the cacique and his closest followers. Cassava, corn and some other types of fermented foods completed a sequence of drinks that the Spaniards liked and partly despised because they had already their own “stock” of wines, grape spirits, and others. It is also important to point out that there were foods used for body decoration, such as the achiote (Bixa orellana) and the jagua, (Genipa americana). These foods were manipulated and utilized as dyes, which was a very common tradition in both the Antilles and the Amazon area. The jagua, for instance has a black dye that hardened the skin and rejected the insects. The achiote was a ritual colorant that attracted spirits and improved the physical appearance.