Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Microbial food action: Old World vs. New

photo: Vonda McIntyre, courtesy of Nancy Kress

At lunch this weekend with a bunch o' writers, Vonda McIntyre asked a question I couldn't answer. I could paraphrase it for you, but Vonda's blog over at Book View Cafe puts it more elegantly than I could:

In the pre-Columbian Eastern hemisphere, what we used to call in geography class “The Old World,” most of the staple foods are based on the action of microbes: Bread, beer, wine, yoghurt, cheese, sauerkraut, kefir, injira, miso. Fish sauce.

In the pre-Columbian Western hemisphere, this is not true.



When I ask the question, whether I pose it to historians, anthropologists, foodies, or friends I’m hanging around with over a fermented beverage, everybody else says either, “Huh, I never thought of that!” or “But Native Americans had corn beer.” This is true. They also had chocolate, whose production includes a fermentation step. But none of the fermented foods in the Americas before Columbus were staple foods, as far as I can make out. They were ceremonial. Chocolate was reserved for the nobility, and the male nobility at that.

My first thoughts are in two sets.

First: the issue of plenty and/or climate. If you have a great balanced diet of grains (maize) and pulses (all those beans), it's not as important to be able to break down the grains with fermentation to free extra nutrients. Also, I think that big chunks of the New World are arid, so perhaps preservation of food (dry those beans, parch that corn, air-dry or smoke that buffalo) was as much of an issue and so lessened the need for bacterial cultures as a preservation strategy. (And various bacteria do less well in arid conditions. Though, hey, the south and its humidity renders all those arguments moot.) Then there the question of whether the lack of dairy goodness (cheese, yoghurt) is a function of lack of domesticity of milk animals or the other way around: did no one bother to domesticate animals whose food they couldn't store long-term?

Second: photosynthesis. Specifically, the difference between C3 and C4 photosynthesis. There's a lot more C4 photosynthesis in the New World than the Old. It just seems as though that should have something to do with it. (I cheerfully admit those many of my 'intuitions' about science are wrong.) I just don't know enough biochemistry or botany to figure it all out.

Anyone got any thoughts on this?

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