The Austin Chronicle

Yummer Reading

By Rachel Feit, May 27, 2005, Food

Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America

by William W. Dunmire

UT Press, 375 pp., $24.95 (paper)

When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they brought with them not just their horses, guns, and colonists, but an entire agricultural system of seeds and animal stock to transplant onto their newly discovered kingdom. Before long, New Spain blossomed with old-world fruit trees, grape vines, and vegetable patches that transformed the foreignÊterrain of the Aztecs into Mediterranean gardens. In Gardens of New Spain, William Dunmire, a former naturalist for the National Park Service, maps out the plants and animals the Spanish introduced to Mesoamerica and their steady migration northward over the next three centuries. While the topic seems almost obvious – we all know that cultigens such as wheat, rice, and grapes were brought over by the Spanish as staples – Dunmire's close scrutiny reveals just how programmatic the Spanish effort was to impose their agricultural template onto the Americas. From livestock to silk-producing mulberry orchards to complex irrigation aqueducts, the Spanish radically altered the American landscape.

Appropriately, Dunmire begins the book with an examination of indigenous agriculture of the 15th and 16th centuries. The ease with which the Spanish were able to implant their own agricultural complex, he argues, is attributable to the high degree of complexity that already existed within Meso and North American food systems. Beyond the already well-documented triumvirate of maize, beans, and squash that formed the cornerstone of indigenous agriculture, native Meso and North Americans also developed ingenious irrigation systems, tended fruit orchards, and cultivated lavish commercial flower gardens. From this fertile ground began one of the most frenzied cross-cultural agricultural exchanges ever to have taken place. Other books have dealt with the speed with which Europe came to embrace such Native American foodstuffs as the tomato, chocolate, and maize. The same is true for the Old World foods in America. In fact, so rapidly did indigenous Americans adopt some Old World cultigens, that when Spanish missionaries finally reached the Tejas of northeast Texas, they discovered them already growing watermelons and peaches – two Old World fruits introduced through Mexico and Florida only 150 years earlier.

This book is an excellent reference for anyone concerned with the origins of specific plants, telling the story through interesting anecdotes derived from historical texts. Serious historians, however, might grimace over the complete absence of systematic referencing for certain facts. On the other hand, Dunmire's simple approach to the topic makes it easily accessible to the casual reader.

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