The Adaptation of New Food: Medieval Spices, Crops, Sugar Cane, and Fast Food Analysis

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Global trade has enabled us to exchange many kinds of foods across the world since the past. Today, if we are interested in some foods which are grown up or produced in the distant place, we will get to know at least some information about what it is like to be. Before we barely got information in the past, however, it was considerably difficult to know about the food which was unknown at that time in that place. As a result, people sometimes remained suspicious of some foods. On the contrary, they looked other foods as edible or adaptable. Many people have encountered various food thanks to global commerce since the Middle Ages around the world. They have adapted a lot of food including spices, crops, or even fast food because they have played important roles in the society and because they have provided a lot of benefits for us. In contrast to these advantages, some foods have been seemed suspicious because they might cause some problems which were harmful for people’s health or the social hierarchy. Therefore, in this essay, I would like to focus on how and why people accepted some foods or had suspicion of others.

First, spices have fascinated European people because they have a variety of functions not only as flavoring but also as drugs, fragrance, and showing people’s social status. In medieval gastronomy, spices were used in 75 percent of the recipes in European cookbooks from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Most spices were traded and consumed east of the Mediterranean, which means that Europe was isolated from the center of a trade, India. Arab merchants knew almost all trade routes because they handled the trading, but the Mongol Empire extended their power from China to the even Eastern Europe, western entrepreneurs could trade with Chinese merchants.i However, what is mentioned here is that they did not start using spices after they reached to Europe. They used spice since the Roman Empire (Freedman, 2009).

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The question we have to consider here is why European people were allured by spices. Freedman (2009) analyzes that “Versality is especially significant because, as previously stated, spices were not used just for cooking. They were regarded as drugs and as disease preventives in a society…They could be consumed in edible form or breathed as perfume or incense.” (p.3) Let us examine spices’ functions in detail. In the first place, spices were used as drugs. In the Middle Ages, both health and personality were decided in terms of the humors and four bodily fluids. Spice were regarded to make food hot and dry, which meant it could offset cold food (Lecture 2, “The Spice Trade and Medieval Food Cultures,” 1/10/19). People thought the balanced meal would lead to be healthy, so spices were considered to be beneficial for our body. Secondly, spices were a part of fragrance both religiously and sexually. For example, spices were associated with divine existence in Christianity while they were contained in Jewish rituals. i Considering these religious facts, spices were related with Christian customs.

Most importantly, spices enabled people to show their social status. As silk, clothes or gems were pursued by the wealth, spices were also sought in order to distinguish themselves from the mass or the simply rich and maintain their social status. Spices showed affluence in the Middle Age, they are not perceived in the same way these days, which means that the hierarchy of food has changed. For the reasons mentioned above, spices were attractive to many people in the Middle Ages.

Second, the Columbian Exchange allowed people to exchange a lot of foods and as a result of it, people familiarize themselves with new foods thanks to many advantages while they continued to be dubious of others because of their unfamiliarity. Nunn and Qian explain that “The Columbian Exchange refers to the exchange of diseases, ideas, food, crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World following the voyage to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.” This clearly shows that both benefits and losses were carried because of the Columbian Exchange. It introduced the New World crop to the Old World such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. Since they offered large calories and nutrients by eating only one crop, they have been embraced since then. Despite their advantageous characteristics, European people were slow to adapt potatoes. In the Middle Ages, a huge ingestion of cold food was thought to be bad for the health, but the place where potatoes are grown in is dark so they were connected with moistness, darkness, and coldness. In addition, European people believed that the food in the New World would not be suitable for them (Lecture 3, “The Columbian Exchange,” 1/15/19). Other reasons should be taken into consideration, but from these reasons, European people remained suspicious of potatoes for a while.

Next, let us consider chocolate, which was not adapted soon in the Old World. By the 16th century, chocolate became popular in Spain or Portugal but before that, it was not accepted by the Old World. This is because Spanish officials were afraid of the popularity of chocolate among Spanish colonists, and they thought it would disturb the social hierarchy in the colony (Lecture 3, “The Columbian Exchange,” 1/15/19). It was incorporated with Spanish customs faster than potatoes but given these people’s response, it was not easy for them to accept new foods in the Middle Age. Additionally, the Old World foods were brought to the New Worlds and they also suited for cultivation. One of the Old World crops which were raised was sugar cane. It was introduced to the New World in 1493, and the New World controlled its production by 1680 because the land condition was suitable in Americas. (178) Therefore, many foods thanks to the Columbian Exchange were accepted and perceived to be distrustful.

Lastly, we will discuss fast food in the 20th century. Fast food such as McDonald’s or KFC are really popular all over the world, but its adaptation to the local place had various backgrounds and needed proper tactics. Russia is a good example to illustrate how people adapted McDonalds. Russia’s August 1998 financial crisis evoked a nationwide ‘Buy Russia’ campaign that linked with Nash (‘ours’), which made Russian customers pay attention to goods produced in Russia. (396) However, “the ideology of Nash transcends absolute distinctions between local and foreign and instead creates more abstract categories of insider and outsider” (397). Also people and culture have become interconnected across the world, local spaces started to lose their distinctiveness and people living in that area can feel their local spaces only by imagination. (399) Thus, Caldwell states that “As McDonald’s has lost its strangeness and become familiar and comfortable, it has become in very tangible ways, domesticated” (11).

McDonald’s success in Russia is not because of domestication but because of their effort. In order to attract new customers after McDonald’s opened their first outlet, they appropriated the principle of Nash so that Russian customers can trust them. They also paid attention to nutrition and health because the healthiness and authenticity in Russians’ view depend on where foods were grown and by whom.(13,14) Due to their continuous efforts, McDonald’s established their position as a domesticated food in Russia.

Their success is shown in China. In Beijing, McDonald’s became one of the new kind of social place, and especially women like it. In traditional restaurants in China, men mostly decide and order foods. However, in McDonald’s, women can make their own order and buy by themselves. It also provides toys or play places by targeting children, so women who even have children can go to have a conversation in McDonald’s (Lecture 4, “Global Foods/Local Meaning,” 01/24/19). Consequently, fast foods became familiar with our life even though they were not their own country’s company.

In conclusion, people have come into contact with many foods and incorporated into their life or hesitated to adapt them. New foods were sometimes regarded to have harmful effects on us. However, in most cases, they were integrated people’s way of having food. It is necessary to keep in mind that the adaption of new foods did not necessarily enrich people’s lives. As for the case of fast food, since McDonald’s has been globalized in the world, it has caused problems with regard to obesity, environmental destruction or unemployment. Also, as a result of the adaptation, some foods lost their privileges. Therefore, one question is raised: is it advantageous for us to adapt new foods? We have to pay attention to the consequence after new foods were introduced so that we can understand whether it is beneficial for us or not.

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The Adaptation of New Food: Medieval Spices, Crops, Sugar Cane, and Fast Food Analysis. (2021, Nov 13). Retrieved from

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