- Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era by J. D. La Fleur, and: Rice: Global Networks and New Histories ed. by Francesca Bray et al.
For at least the last ten thousand years and probably much longer, most people have depended for most of their calories on a primary starchy staple, usually prepared from a grain or a root. Secondary starches have provided a backup in case of crop failure and in the lean time before the harvest of the primary starch. Besides being fundamental to health, food security, and culture, these staples, so laborious to farm and process, were integral to the distribution of labor, to divisions between subsistence and market agriculture, and to economic growth or lack of it. Changing how familiar staples were produced or processed, or shifting to a new staple, even if this promised a more secure or more appealing diet, was never undertaken lightly.
Such changes are central to, if not always carefully analyzed in two widely-discussed issues in the history of the modern world. The first is the Columbian Exchange, the transfer of living things, plants included, between the Old World and the New, described by Alfred Crosby in The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1973), and frequently assumed to have precipitated rapid dietary change and population growth. The second is the question of why the West industrialized in the nineteenth century, when China and other non-western civilizations apparently failed to do so. For much of the second half of the twentieth century, the answer was framed in terms of Clifford Geertz’s Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological [End Page 302] Change in Indonesia (1963), in which he argued that rice farming could be intensified almost indefinitely, increasing production per area at the cost of keeping production per worker the same, and thus leading to economic stagnation. The environmental historian Mark Elvin extended this analysis to China in The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1973) suggesting that China had fallen in to a “high-level equilibrium trap.” Both Fusion Foodways and Rice address the Columbian Exchange, while Rice also takes on the Involution hypothesis.
To begin with exchange, in Fusion Foodways, La Fleur focusses on the introduction of maize, Asian rice, plantains, and cassava to southern Ghana between 1482 when the Portuguese established a fort at Elmina and 1850 when the Atlantic era tilted over to the colonial period. Faced with a sparsity of written sources, a lack of physical remains thanks to the climate, oral traditions directed as much at present concerns as at representing the past, and a still-scanty literature on plant genetics, La Fleur turned to language. From early European books and manuscripts and current usage, he collected food names in five different vernaculars, concentrating on loan words for unfamiliar crops and adapted words for new crops similar to ones already in cultivation.
As a preliminary, La Fleur reviews the thousands of years of African experiments with different foraged, gardened, and eventually farmed crops. Only in the last hundred years before the arrival of the Portuguese did the local people finally settle on African rice, millet, sorghum, or yam as their main staples, selecting one or more depending on local conditions and their need to minimize or reduce both labor and risk of crop failure. Each staple was processed into one or more basic staple foods, the most prestigious being fufu, a dish of cooked, pounded yam. Thus the locals, particularly women, were already experienced in the arduous work that went into the adoption of a new crop. This involved trial plantings in gardens, breeding to adapt the crop to local environmental conditions and cultural expectations, and developing ways to process and cook the plants into appetizing dishes.
Plantains which are propagated by cuttings not seeds, were one of the...