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The Canaries: Food's Ellis Island : Symposium: The Canary Islands use the Columbus quincentenary celebration to assert their role in food history.


What do the Canary Islands have to do with polenta, gazpacho and the Big Mac?

Beginning in 1492, the year of Columbus's first New World voyage, there was a cataclysmic interchange of food products that changed the world's cuisines forever. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash, chocolate and many other modern-day staples were brought east by Columbus and his successors; in turn, they introduced the New World to wheat, rice, sugar, chicken, lamb, beef and pork, as well as literally hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables, from the eggplant to the orange, the olive to the grape. The Canaries, a small archipelago off the southwestern coast of Morocco, was the way station for this monumental two-way migration, the rest stop for the raw ingredients that hundreds of years later begat the Big Mac.

It's not that Columbus couldn't have found another place to dock his boats before sailing off into history, but the Canaries were en route from Spain to the Americas, and so they found a place alongside the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria in the New World saga. And transantlantic sailors didn't just stop off there for food and water: they planted and farmed. As well as serving as an experimental station for potential imports from the New World, the Canaries were an oversized nursery-cum-breeding farm for the propagation of European plants and animals destined for the Americas, particularly for the tropical regions.

This heroic period, and the Canaries' place in it, was the subject of a symposium, "Canarias en la Ruta de los Alimentos" (roughly, "The Canaries as an Alimentary Crossroads") May 4 through 8 in the Canaries themselves, half in Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife and half in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria.

But there was more than history behind the staging of the symposium--there was politics. As Juan Manuel Garcia Ramos, head of the islands' Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports, put it: The Canary Islands have been " olvidado olimpicamente ," or "Olympically forgotten," by the Spanish government in the planning of the official observances of the 500th-anniversary celebration of Columbus's initial voyage. (The Olympic reference is to the 1992 summer games in Barcelona.) The Canarians decided that since they were left out of the official schedule, they would celebrate on their own . . . a year early, thus upstaging the rest of Spain.

The organizers obviously wanted to do things right: Among the gastronomic and academic celebrities who were to have attended the symposium, either as speakers or as participants in the round-table discussions, were Umberto Eco, Jean-Francois Revel (author of "Culture and Cuisine"), American anthropologist Marvin Harris ("Good to Eat," "Cannibals and Kings"), Mexican cooking teacher and author Patricia Quintana and American-born British food writer Paul Levy ("The Foodie's Handbook," "Out to Lunch"). Paul Bocuse was to have been among the chefs preparing the banquet that was to close the convocation.

As it turned out, none of them showed up. Levy, who has a bad back, reportedly decided not to come when symposium organizers refused him a first-class ticket from London to the Canaries. Bocuse's place was taken by Michel Troisgros, young scion of the famed Troisgros restaurant near Lyon. The rest of the cast was something of a mixed bag, including as speakers (among others) an economist, a nutritionist, a viticulturist from Spain, a Costa Rican anthropologist, a Portuguese novelist, an Italian poet and critic, and me.

There were also a number of noted food writers (mostly from Spain and South America), but also a travel-guide editor from London, a glamorous Spanish TV anchorwoman, a Madrid-based Danish general-interest reporter and a gloomy Norwegian economic reporter, also based in Madrid, who announced privately that she wouldn't be writing anything about the symposium because everything discussed happened "too long ago, too far away."

The first session, held in a conference room at the cliff-side Hotel Semiramis in Puerto de la Cruz on Tenerife, was launched by Mauricio Wiesenthal, a Barcelona-based journalist and historian who has written on subjects as diverse as the construction of the Taj Mahal and Mexican dessert cookery, and who edits a Spanish wine magazine called Encuentros con el Vino (Encounters With Wine). He offered a vivid, impassioned paean to wine. A team of interpreters, gathered in a glass booth at the back of the room, provided simultaneous translations for the multilingual crowd.

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