The History and Culture of Food and Drink: Caribbean from 1492 to the Present

Jeffrey M Pilcher. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Following 1492, the Caribbean basin became a cultural meeting ground that remains unsurpassed for the variety of influences: European, Asian, African, and American. At times, the clash of cultures led to tragedy, such as the destruction of pre-Columbian Indians by European diseases or the centuries of African enslavement on sugar plantations. But the Caribbean people have also produced cultural triumphs, not the least of which are the tropical dishes of island cooking.

Cuisine can provide important insights into the process of cultural change. Each new group of immigrants to the Caribbean, from Taino “natives” (originally from South America) to Spanish conquistadors and from African slaves to Asian laborers, brought with them their knowledge of foods and how to prepare them. Island cuisine drew together maize and manioc from America, domesticated pigs and cattle from Europe, garden plants, such as okra and akee, from Africa, and citrus fruits and rice from Asia. Unfortunately, notwithstanding this rich variety of foods, poverty has made malnutrition a recurring problem in the region. Slaves (and many whites) suffered from a frightful variety of nutrition-related diseases, many of which have returned to haunt the impoverished masses of the twentieth century. Modernization has, meanwhile, threatened to replace traditional dishes with a processed and packaged uniformity of industrial foods. But island cooks have adapted to pressures, both economic and ecological, to create a genuinely global cuisine with a uniquely local taste.

The Columbian Exchange

The arrival of Europeans transformed the ecology of the Caribbean basin, but it did so in an uneven manner. Sixteenth-century Spaniards concentrated their colonizing efforts on the Greater Antilles, comprising Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The newcomers brought with them the staples of Mediterranean life, including plants, animals, and diseases (the latter having a disastrous impact on the native population), but they made little effort to consolidate their hold over the region. The Lesser Antilles, stretching from the Virgin Islands just east of Puerto Rico to the Venezuelan coast, did not attract European attention until the seventeenth century, when British, French, Dutch, and Danish colonists began challenging the Iberian New World monopoly. These new settlers, although left with only smaller islands unsettled by the Spanish, soon built wealthy plantations based on sugar harvested by African slaves. By the eighteenth century, the sugar economy had spread to encompass virtually the entire Caribbean.

Culinary Encounters

Spanish settlers, having exhausted the Caribbean’s scant gold deposits within a few decades, recognized that a different approach was necessary in order to make their fortunes in the New World. For a model, they looked to the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, which had fallen to Spaniards in the last two decades of the fifteenth century. The natives there had quickly disappeared, either through death from European diseases or through intermarriage with European settlers, and the conquerors had reshaped the islands’ ecology by introducing Mediterranean plants and animals. Spanish settlers hoped to create still more of these island replicas of Europe in the Caribbean (Crosby 1986: 80-100).

The Taino inhabitants of the Caribbean consumed foods that were quite different from those of Europe. Their staple crops were not grains but rather roots, such as manioc (Manihot esculenta), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), and tania (Xanmthosoma spp.). Maize (Zea mays) was also cultivated although it did not add significantly to the native diet. Islanders prepared cassava “bread” from the poisonous manioc by grating the root, squeezing out its toxic juice, pressing the meat into a flat bread, and baking it on a griddle. Native fruits and vegetables included pineapple (Ananas comosus), guava (Psidium guajava), mamey (Mammea americana), pawpaw (Carica papaya), cashews (Anacardium occidentale), common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and lima beans (Phaseolus lunatis). These plants occasioned different reactions from the Europeans, who ate some eagerly and fed others to pigs. The conquistadors marveled at the game eaten by the Indians—“all sorts of wild and poisonous beasts”—including dogs, snakes, rodents, raccoons, armadillos, lizards, tapirs, opossums, and spiders. Seafood was more to the Spaniards’ taste, with such items as bagre (a catfish of Caribbean and South American waters), mullet, herring, mackerel, tunny, shark, rayfish, dogfish, crayfish, shrimp, mussels, clams, oysters, crab, conches, and turtles (Morison 1963: 216-19; Sauer 1966: 53-9; Newson 1976: 41-57).

Notwithstanding the bountiful native foods, European settlers yearned for more familiar fare. Their habitual Mediterranean cuisine consisted of three staple items: wheat bread, olive oil, and vinifera wine. Spaniards considered wheat (Triticum aestivum) essential for both body and soul. According to an eleventh-century papal edict, it was the only grain that could serve as the Holy Eucharist (Ross 1977: 61-9). Wine from grapes (Vitis vinifera) fulfilled an equally important role in the Catholic Mass as the blood of Christ. And although priests could proceed in their work without olives (Oleo europea), Spanish cooks certainly could not. Christopher Columbus brought wheat seeds on his second voyage in 1493, but the grain refused to grow in the tropical climate, and transplanted vine cuttings and olive seedlings fared no better. Even imported Communion wafers “did bend like to wet paper, by reason of the extreme humidity and heat”(Crosby 1972: 65; Newson 1976: 84-6).

European livestock, by contrast, multiplied rapidly in the islands. In 1493 Columbus introduced horses, cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep to the New World. The goats and sheep proved ill adapted to the humid Caribbean air, but the other animals prospered. Diego Velázquez claimed that by 1514, the pig population of Cuba had increased to 30,000. Puerto Rico became an important center of cattle raising and exported large quantities of jerked beef and prepared hides during the seventeenth century. Spanish sailors purposely turned breeding stock loose on islands so that future visitors would have access to pork and beef. Unfortunately, rats and other vermin, inadvertently carried by the Europeans, likewise became firmly established on the islands (Crosby 1972: 75-9;Newson 1976:88-90; Dietz 1986:8).

Caribbean gardens and orchards became much more diverse as a result of the Columbian exchange. Colonists planted cabbages (Brassica sp.), onions (Allium cepa), carrots (Daucus carota), lettuce (Lactuca sativa), radishes (Raphanus sativus), garlic (Allium sativum), and chickpeas (Cicer arietinum). Large numbers of Asian plants arrived in the New World during the sixteenth century. In some cases, they had previously been introduced to Spain by the Muslims; in other instances, they reached the Caribbean via the slave trade. Citrus fruits included lemons (Citrus limon), limes (C. aurantifolia), and sour oranges (C.aurantium), as well as the European sweet orange (C. sinensis). Other Asian plants that thrived in the Caribbean were muskmelons (Cucumis melo), pomegranates (Punica granatum), plantains and bananas (Musa paradisiaca sapientium),eggplants (Solanum melongena), ginger (Zingiber officinale), cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), and rice(Oryza sativa). Coconuts (Cocos nucifera), of undetermined origin, were present on the Pacific Coast in pre-Columbian times, but Spaniards probably introduced them to the Caribbean. The most significant of the new arrivals, however, was sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), which ultimately dictated the social structure of most of the region (Watson 1974: 8-35; Newson 1976:46,84-7).

These new crops gave little compensation to the natives for the destruction caused by European diseases and labor drafts. Conquistadors received grants of Tainos entrusted to their care (encomienda), ostensibly for conversion to Christianity, but certainly as a source of labor as well. Moreover, the Spanish crown condoned outright slavery in the case of Carib tribes because of their “warlike nature” and supposed cannibalistic practices. The harsh working conditions for both Tainos and Caribs alike would have precipitated high death and low birth rates. But epidemics, such as that of smallpox, which began in 1518, also joined in the slaughter because the Indians had little resistance to European diseases. Indeed, it was with only small exaggeration that Bartolomé de las Casas claimed in 1542 that the Caribbean natives had virtually disappeared. By 1570, Indians in the Spanish Antilles numbered 22,000, a fourth of the entire population of those islands. And having resisted enslavement for centuries, a handful of Caribs survive to the present on Dominica (Sauer 1966: 203-5; Newson 1976: 149, 170; Knight 1990: 41-3; Hulme and Whitehead 1992:345).

Following the conquests of Mexico in 1521 and Peru in 1532, the majority of colonists proceeded to the mainland, hoping to make their fortunes from Indian labor and silver mines, and the Greater Antilles were left with only a few small settlements of people who subsisted on corn and cassava. Havana became the leading port because of its strategic location on the route of silver fleets returning to Spain. For the next two and a half centuries, Spain’s Caribbean colonies served mainly as defensive outposts, guarding against incursions by rival European powers.

The Tyranny of Sugar

Spaniards established sugar mills on Hispaniola as early as 1515 and operated a thriving business in the mid-1500s, but by the end of the century production had stagnated. Portuguese plantations in Brazil then dominated New World sugar production until 1630, when the Dutch West India Company invaded the South American colony. After the Dutch were finally driven out, they carried the Brazilian techniques to French and English planters in their newly founded colonies in the Lesser Antilles.

Sugar monoculture first took root in Barbados and then spread to other British and (later) French islands. The initial settlers of Barbados had made a meager living growing low-quality tobacco and cotton on small estates. But the introduction of sugar by Dutch merchants, beginning in the 1630s, transformed the island. Thanks to Europe’s developing sweet tooth, the new industry proved enormously profitable, causing land values to rise astronomically. Smallholders sold out to an emerging planter elite, who, in their hunger for land, cleared much of the remaining forests until most of the island’s acreage was planted in cane or food crops to feed whites and their slaves. But Europeans on the islands soon became a minority as tens of thousands of African slaves were imported to work the plantations. By 1680, sugar estates had gained similar domination over the rest of the British Antilles. The French were slower to make the transition from small farms, where they grew tobacco and cotton, to large plantations devoted to sugarcane grown by slaves. Nevertheless, by the mid-eighteenth century, Saint-Domingue, Guadaloupe, and Martinique had become major centers of sugar production, and by the latter part of the century, Caribbean sugar production amounted to nearly a quarter of a million tons (Dunn 1972: 46-62; Mintz 1985: 32-5; Watts 1987: 296-300; Tomich 1990: 15).

Sugar exports from the Spanish Antilles did not revive until the mid-eighteenth century. Royal trade regulations prevented colonial producers from selling sugar to northern European markets and limited the supplies of African slaves. Tax reforms undertaken in the 1740s reversed this situation, and exports to Spain increased massively. This trend accelerated in 1762 after British forces had captured Havana and imported thousands of additional slaves. When the Spanish regained control of the island the following year, they allowed Britain to continue trading with the port, and delighted by the additional tax revenues, officials encouraged cane production on Puerto Rico and Hispaniola as well. By the mid-nineteenth century, following the revolution on Saint-Domingue, Cuba had become one of the most profitable colonies in the world (Hall 1971: 98-100; McNeill 1985: 162-70; Dietz 1986: 19-20; Watts 1987: 301-4).

One final element of the Columbian exchange that resulted directly from the labor demands of sugar plantations was the transportation to the New World of huge numbers of African slaves. Philip Curtin (1969: 265-9; 1976: 595-605) estimated that Caribbean planters imported almost 5 million slaves, fully half the total brought to the Americas. And with them came African foods. Plants introduced to the Americas via the slave trade included watermelons (Colocynthis citrullus), okra (Hibiscus esculentus), taro (Colocasia esculenta—called eddo in the West Indies), oil palms (Elaeis guineensis), pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan), and yams (Dioscorea spp.) (Harris 1965: 92-3, 115; Newson 1976: 161). But familiar foods notwithstanding, the journey to America made significant changes in the diets of enslaved Africans.

Plantation Nutrition

The food aboard slave ships provided an ominous portent of life in the New World. The standard fare consisted of a dreary soup of rice, yams, horsebeans, palm oil, and red peppers. Illness followed the slaves throughout the voyage, from the initial shock of sea-sickness to lingering bouts of dysentery and, finally, the bleeding gums of scurvy (Kiple 1984: 57-64). A slave who survived the trip could expect little improvement on the plantation because, as J. Harry Bennett (1958: 37) explained, “he ate from his master’s purse, and every mouthful was measured in cash.” Virtually every nutritional deficiency disease was experienced by slaves somewhere in the West Indies. But although the African population ate poorly, Europeans spared no expense on their own, often imported foods.

Slave Subsistence

Sidney Mintz (1985: 55-61) has demonstrated that Caribbean sugar plantations, although worked by slave labor, were managed as capitalist enterprises. Planters faced enormous risks in the fluctuating world sugar market and sought to minimize their operating expenses whenever possible. Although buying slaves represented a substantial fixed investment, feeding them offered endless opportunities for cost cutting. Thus, in the early years when sugar prices were high, many estate managers planted every available acre in cane and fed their slaves with imported grain and dried meat. But as competition drove prices down, planters economized by reducing rations and allowing slaves to cultivate subsistence crops, especially on mountain slopes unfit for sugar cultivation. But despite marginal lands and limited free time, slaves with their own fields consumed a better diet than those who worked exclusively in the cane fields.

In practice, plantation diets fell between the two extremes of entirely ration-fed slaves and those who had to be self-sufficient. But even on the most heavily planted sugar islands, such as Barbados, Antigua, and St. Kitts, slaves kept small kitchen gardens with herbs, squash, peppers, and okra, and certain fields called “Negro fields” or “Negro ground” were set aside for slave use. Conversely, on islands with large areas of mountainous terrain, such as Jamaica and Martinique, plantation managers often bought staples, including corn, rice, manioc, yams, plantains, and bananas, rather than allocating provision grounds and free time to the slaves. Moreover, slaves on virtually all of the islands depended for animal protein on imports of dried meat and salted fish (Kiple 1984: 67; Morrissey 1989: 51-7; Tomich 1990: 271).

Mercantile policies dictated that provisions for the Caribbean sugar islands come from within each empire. Thus, British merchants supplied their plantations with salt cod and corn from New England, jerked beef from Ireland, herring from the North Sea, and rice from South Carolina. Many smaller Jamaican estates with less-favorable lands also produced staple crops for sale to the sugar plantations (Milling 1951: 82; Dunn 1972: 210, 276; Kiple 1984: 69).The French settlements of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue, meanwhile, imported a significant portion of the codfish harvested off Newfoundland (McNeill 1985: 112).And as Spanish sugar production expanded in the nineteenth century, planters on Cuba and, to a lesser extent, Puerto Rico began importing large quantities of rice and jerked beef (Humboldt 1969: 305; Dietz 1986: 19-20).Yet despite the intentions of colonial officials, smugglers cut across imperial lines on a regular basis (Liss 1983: 77; Pérotin-Dumon 1991: 65).

Imperial regulations also attempted to assure that slaves received adequate rations. The French Code Noir, promulgated in 1685 by Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, required masters to issue each adult slave two pounds of salted beef or three pounds of fish and six pounds of cassava bread or the equivalent of manioc flour. British slave codes were more concerned with preserving order than protecting slaves, and it was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that a standard ration of about three pounds of meat or fish per week began to be prescribed. Eighteenth-century Spanish authorities, likewise, made belated calls for a weekly meat ration of three pounds. But once again, plantation reality differed sharply from imperial regulations, and many managers admitted feeding their slaves half of the required amounts, and they were often in such a rancid state that most of the nutrients were gone. Although slaves responded by stealing food whenever possible, this expedient was no substitute for adequate rations (Dunn 1972: 239; Friedman 1982: 507; Kiple 1984: 68, 77; Dirks 1987: 61-7, 100; Stein 1988: 52).

Slaves prepared their rations using simple cooking techniques taken from their African homelands or borrowed from native Indians. Cassava bread was made by means of pre-Columbian procedures for removing the toxic juice and then baking the grated flesh into a flat bread. Slaves who grew their own maize on provision grounds preferred to roast whole ears and eat them on the cob. But as a ration, they typically received corn in the form of meal, which was made into a thin gruel called “loblolly” or “coo-coo.” Other foodstuffs, including salted meat or fish, yams, plantains, and vegetables, were boiled together in an iron pot. The ingredients of these stews varied among the islands according to availability. For example, slaves on Antigua reportedly ate a breakfast of eddo (taro), okra, yams, and other vegetables. On Jamaica, the pepper pot contained greens, such as callaloo, starch from yams or plantains, red pepper, and bits of fish (Harris 1965: 115; Dunn 1972: 278-9; Kiple and Kiple 1980: 202; Dirks 1987: 53-4).

Even this simple fare was threatened in the late eighteenth century, however, when imperial warfare and natural disaster led to a major subsistence crisis. Trouble began in 1774 when the American Continental Congress resolved to stop exporting goods to British dominions, including the West Indies. By 1776, the revolutionaries succeeded in rendering the British sugar industry unprofitable, and famine appeared on Barbados, Antigua, and St. Kitts. At first, Jamaican slaves fared better because of the availability of provision grounds. But beginning in 1780, the islands were struck by a series of hurricanes that killed thousands and destroyed provisions. Even after the final storms of 1786, thousands more died from malnutrition, dysentery, and other epidemic diseases. The British government compounded the disaster by refusing to allow a resumption of trade with the newly independent United States (Sheridan 1976: 615-41; Dirks 1987: 80).

The decade-long crisis demonstrated the need to make the islands more self-sufficient. One response of the British government was to import new food crops to the islands. In 1778, slave ships brought the akee fruit (Blighia sapida) to Jamaica from West Africa. An Asian domesticate, the mango (Mangifera indica), arrived a few years later, and both fruits became important for slave subsistence. In 1787, the Royal Navy dispatched HMS Bounty under William Bligh to bring the breadfruit (Artocarpus incisa) from Tahiti. Thwarted at first by a notorious mutiny, in 1793 Bligh succeeded in his mission with the HMS Providence, earning a handsome reward from the Jamaican assembly. Unfortunately, the Jamaican slaves refused to eat the unfamiliar fruit, and for the next fifty years it was fed to pigs (Parry 1955: 1-20).

A more important change came from the expansion of slave provision grounds and slave markets. Slaves in Jamaica and Saint-Domingue had long produced staple crops on their provision grounds, and they even dominated the island markets. Amelioration laws, issued in the British Antilles late in the eighteenth century, encouraged more slaves on other islands to grow their own provisions. French officials on Martinique likewise allowed provision grounds and free time to grow substitutes for the rations handed out by masters (Mintz 1974: 180-213; Kiple 1984: 67-71; Tomich 1990: 262-5). And slaves who produced their own foods ate substantially better diets. According to Barry Higman (1979: 373-86), better nutrition was the reason that American-born slaves grew taller in the Bahamas than on islands where sugar was the primary crop. But despite attempts at amelioration, slave diets contained grave deficiencies.

Diet and Disease

One of the most notable aspects of the West Indian sugar industry was the failure to develop a self-sustaining slave population. Caribbean planters, unlike their North American counterparts, had to import tens of thousands of workers each year to replace those who had died. This policy may have developed in the seventeenth century from the cold calculation that it was more expensive to maintain slaves in good health than to work them to death and import replacements. But planters did not see their work force reproduce even after the abolition of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. One of the primary reasons for the slaves’ failure to reproduce was the inadequate levels of nutrition. Diet-related diseases ran the gamut from protein and vitamin deficiencies to hypertension and lead poisoning.

Kenneth Kiple (1984: 77-81) has shown that slave diets were nutritionally deficient even if slaves actually received the provisions specified by legal requirements. For example, prescribed rations of dried beef and fish would appear to have exceeded the modern recommended dietary allowance of protein, but in fact, the slaves received these foods in a less-than-ideal state. One observer described the fish as “little better than a mass of foetid matter, containing as little nutrition as the brine in which they lie” (Kiple 1984: 80). Beef likewise lost much of its protein from the curing process. Protein deficiency weakened the slaves’ immune systems and led in turn to widespread outbreaks of tuberculosis, dysentery, and other infectious diseases. Poor sanitary conditions unquestionably contributed to these epidemics, but slaves could have resisted many of these diseases with adequate supplies of protein (Kiple 1984: 142-3; Dirks 1987: 85).

Kiple has also documented shortages of most important vitamins, as well as calcium and iron. The most serious problems resulted from deficiencies of vitamin B 1 (thiamine) and B 3 (niacin). Slaves subsisting on white rice were at risk of developing beriberi, a thiamine-deficiency disease that takes two distinct forms. Both wet beriberi, with symptoms including swelling of the limbs and cardiac failure, and dry beriberi, characterized by muscular deterioration and paraplegia, were common to the Caribbean under the names “dropsy” and mal d’estomach. Corn rations, meanwhile, led to pellagra, a niacin-deficiency disease that caused dermatitis, dysentery, dementia, and death. Requirements for other vitamins, such as A and C, might have been satisfied by tropical fruits and chilli peppers. Unfortunately, low quantities of dietary fat prevented full utilization of vitamin A, and as a result, night blindness often reached epidemic proportions. The incidence of scurvy symptoms, including bleeding gums, festering wounds, and frequent bruises, implies a similar deterioration of vitamin C, probably due to excessive cooking. Deficiencies of A and C also slowed the absorption of calcium and iron, leading in turn to rheumatism, periodontal disease, dental caries, and anemia, although iron cooking pots would have helped offset the latter problem (Kiple 1984: 76-103).

Nutritional diseases took their worst toll among young children. Malnourished mothers often gave birth prematurely, and even full-term infants were often significantly underweight. The mother’s poor health continued to have an adverse effect on her children throughout nursing. Neonatal tetany, caused by calcium shortages in the mother’s milk, killed large numbers of infants in the first few weeks of life. Thiamine deficiencies were also passed on to children in the form of infantile beriberi because slave mothers, who did not themselves display symptoms of beriberi, were often unable to provide sufficient quantities of thiamine to their children. Youngsters, even after surviving the critical first year, still faced great risk at the time of weaning. The gruel given to replace a mother’s milk contained little protein, and physicians frequently reported the swollen bellies symptomatic of kwashiorkor. Infant mortality rates on Caribbean plantations were higher even than among slaves in the United States, which helps explain the much greater number of Africans imported to the islands (Kiple 1984: 113-34; Dirks 1987: 85).

With the numerous deficiencies in the slave diet, it is ironic that one potentially serious health problem may have resulted from excessive consumption of sodium. West Africa was a particularly salt-poor region, and the inhabitants apparently adapted to this shortage by naturally retaining sodium. Experiments, for example, have shown that the perspiration of Africans contains much less sodium than that of whites. But once in the Caribbean, African slaves frequently found themselves confronted with sodium in the form of salted beef and fish, and especially with a substantial ration of salt itself. Thomas Wilson (1987: 257-68) has estimated that slaves may have received 20 times the modern recommended amount of salt. The resulting hypertension, although difficult to diagnose without a blood pressure cuff, probably contributed to the incidence of death by “dropsy.” To relieve this chemical imbalance along with other nutritional deficiencies, many slaves engaged in “dirt-eating” (pica). Planters often believed this practice to be a method of committing suicide, and they muzzled slaves suspected of it (Kiple 1984: 46; Dirks 1987: 86-7).

Some Caribbean slaves also suffered from acute lead poisoning from a wide variety of sources. Water channeled by lead gutters, and foods exposed to the lead glaze of earthenware pottery, were potential sources of lead, as were lead-lined boilers and gutters used in sugar refining. Worst of all, slaves who drank cheap rum could have taken in large amounts of lead in alcohol, which was distilled in equipment with lead pipes and fittings. The body retains this excess lead in soft tissue, such as the brain, producing disastrous effects, including headaches, paralysis, coma, and death. One prominent symptom of lead poisoning was the “dry bellyache”—extremely painful intestinal cramps accompanied by severe constipation—which a contemporary described as an “excruciating torture of the bowels” (Handler et al. 1987: 140-66). Sailors, soldiers, and other poor whites also experienced this malady.

Malnourished slaves seldom challenged the society that held them in bondage; what planters feared most was the sudden burst of energy that came with the harvest around Christmas. Robert Dirks (1987: 167-84) has described the effects of relief-induced agonism, a condition of extremely aggressive behavior exhibited by people allowed to eat plentifully after a long period of semistarvation. Slaves in the British West Indies consumed little during the fall months as both sugarcane and provision crops matured. In December, when the end of the hurricane season brought merchant ships and planters handed out special bonuses of sugar, rum, and fish, the slaves suddenly had an overabundance of food. They responded by indulging in orgiastic revels of drinking, dancing, and occasional rebellion. This “Black Saturnalia” provided a temporary reversal of roles in which planters cringed as slaves approached, but after a few days of release, the slaves’ world returned to its grim normality.

Dining in the Great House

Some plantation owners, while limiting slave rations to save a few pennies, often spent outlandish sums to maintain their own extravagant lifestyles. For example, the governor of Barbados celebrated a 1688 holiday by setting a 250-foot table for the island’s leading citizens and opening wine casks in the streets for less distinguished souls. Richard Dunn (1972: 263-4, 280) has speculated that this penchant for conspicuous consumption derived from the hierarchical significance attached to food and clothing in early modern Europe. Each social class had a distinctive style of diet and dress, and nouveaux riches planters adhered to these standards, regardless of the discomforts involved in eating heavy roasts on a humid afternoon or wearing woolen coats and trousers under the tropical sun. But notwithstanding the determination of sweaty, constipated settlers, the islands demanded some adaptation or creolization of European cuisine.

The essentials of proper British dining comprised beef, bread, and beer, but reproducing this diet proved difficult in the tropics. Fresh meat spoiled virtually overnight, and so planters had to rely on salted beef, pork, and fish, although the fish was mackerel and salmon rather than the cheap cod fed to slaves. Wheat, likewise, tended to go bad on the long voyages from Bristol and Philadelphia; thus, planters consumed hard biscuits rather than the soft bread favored in England. Finally, beer proved highly perishable in the tropical climate, and so settlers slaked their thirst with rum, punch, fruit juices, and imported wines and brandy. But what the meals lacked in quality was made up for in quantity; dinner parties with heavily piled tables constituted the sine qua non of planter affluence. A guest at one such party was so impressed by a table with massive piles of meats, fruits, and cakes that she “kept her feet out from under the table for fear it would collapse” (Dunn 1972: 272-81; quotation from Dirks 1987: 45).

The Creole inhabitants of Cuba and Puerto Rico similarly sought to recreate traditional Spanish life in the tropics. Havana cooks used olive oil and garlic with a Mediterranean generosity that overwhelmed Fanny Calderón de la Barca (1966: 28), the Scottish wife of a Spanish minister, on her visit to the island in 1839. She did, however, take great pleasure from the custards, ices, meringues, and other Spanish sweets available on the island. Berta Cabanillas de Rodríguez (1973: 336) likewise emphasized the Spanish character of recipes in the anonymous 1849 volume El Cocinero Puertorriqueño. To satisfy the demand for Iberian foods, the islands imported large amounts of Mexican wheat flour and Spanish wines and liquors (Humboldt 1969: 300; Lipsett-Rivera 1990: 463).

Frenchmen living on Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue were no less eager to enjoy the foods of their homeland. Dominican priest and bon vivant Père Jean-Baptiste Labat imported French wine to the Caribbean as early as 1693 and insisted on drinking a glass with dinner, even after he had been captured by the Spanish. A nineteenth-century visitor observed that French cooking in the Antilles was done in the style of Provence rather than Paris, with olive oil instead of cream, perhaps as a concession to the environment. But French bread remained an invariable staple, and bakeries on Martinique employed women to carry fresh loaves to country estates on a daily basis so that planters did not have to forgo this national treasure (Hearn 1970: 112, 350; Labat 1970: 57, 186).

Despite these links with metropolitan capitals, Europeans never escaped their dependence on African slaves. On the islands of Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, slaves dominated local markets with produce from their provision grounds. They reportedly drove very hard bargains, and even merchants complained that they could not afford fresh eggs, poultry, and produce. If having to buy groceries from slaves caused consternation among whites, the fear that the food might be poisoned provoked genuine terror. Mass hysteria swept Saint-Domingue in the 1780s, and a number of slaves suspected of using poison were put to death. A fear of the slaves was not unfounded, as demonstrated by a slave rebellion in the 1790s that destroyed the colony’s sugar economy and threatened the entire Caribbean plantation society (Hall 1971: 68-72; Geggus 1991: 100).

Modern Diet and Nutrition

In 1789 the French declared liberty to be one of the “rights of man,” and a short time later the slaves of Saint-Domingue launched their own revolution to attain this goal. After more than a decade of fighting, in 1804 Haiti finally gained independence; to preserve it, the former slaves systematically destroyed the island’s sugar economy. Terrified of the Haitian revolution, Caribbean planters fought hard to prevent its spread. Emancipation came slowly to the region. It began in the British colonies in 1834 (followed by a so-called apprentice period) and culminated in Cuba in 1886. However, as emancipation proceeded, planters replaced the slaves with indentured servants from the Far East. Independence, likewise, remained elusive. As European empires retreated, the United States came to dominate the region. Cuban and Puerto Rican sugar plantations passed into the hands of companies like the American Sugar Refining Company, while the cane workers remained destitute. So, although the citizens of the islands long ago escaped slavery, they have subsequently gained only limited control over their destinies.

Asian Transplants

Even as European legislators debated slave emancipation in the early 1800s, Caribbean planters began searching for an alternate source of labor. Imperial expansion into the Far East offered the prospect of endless supplies of indentured Asians to replace the liberated African slaves. In 1838, the year in which slavery ended in the British Antilles, the first boatload of indentured servants arrived from India. Cuba, likewise feeling the pinch of British abolitionism because of the Royal Navy’s war on the slave trade, began to encourage Chinese migration from ports opened after the first Opium War (1839-42). Indentured Asians suffered working conditions little better than those of African slaves, but fortunately, the period of servitude ended much more quickly. By 1920, when the last indenture contract was canceled, Asians had made a significant impact on Caribbean culture and cuisine.

The number of Asian workers who migrated to the West Indies, although fluctuating with the sugar market, totaled more than 500,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. The typical contract specified five- to seven-year terms of indenture and offered minuscule wages, but agents stationed in the ports of Calcutta and Madras had no trouble attracting workers from the impoverished Indian countryside. British Guiana and Trinidad received the majority of the Indian migrants, about 380,000 in all, while some 45,000 went to Jamaica and other British islands. In 1860 the British government allowed French agents to recruit 6,000 Indians annually to work in the West Indies, and a decade later the Dutch received a similar concession. Only about 18,000 Chinese migrants went to the British Antilles. Cuba was their preferred destination, and between 1847 and 1874, nearly 125,000 Chinese came to work on Spanish sugar plantations (Tinker 1974: 52-4, 99, 112; Look Lai 1993: 292).

Indenture contracts usually required workers to return to their homeland at the end of the term, but Asians nevertheless established permanent communities on a number of islands. East Indians in Trinidad took advantage of slumps in the sugar market to entrench themselves in the local economy by growing rice. Chinese immigrants, meanwhile, sought to establish a niche in the Caribbean grocery trade. Competition from these newcomers was often resented, and Chinese people living in Jamaica sometimes became the targets of racial violence. Another barrier to the formation of Asian communities in the Caribbean was the shortage of women. Planters contracted far greater numbers of East Indian men than women; nevertheless, by the end of World War I, additional migration had evened out the sex ratio among East Indians in Trinidad and Martinique. Chinese men faced an even greater imbalance, for Cuba accepted only 62 Chinese women in the nineteenth century. As a result, men tended to marry Creoles and became assimilated more thoroughly than did the East Indians (Tinker 1974: 34, 364, 372; Johnson 1987: 82-95;Look Lai 1993:188-216).

Asians made significant contributions to the cuisine of the islands. Rice had already been established by Spaniards and Africans centuries before the first Asians arrived. But East Indians carried massala, the unique spice combinations that form the basis for curry. They also introduced ghee, the clarified butter essential for traditional Hindu cooking, and roti, a form of flat wheat bread often served with curry. Foods have fulfilled an important role as part of the Hindu yagna celebrations that propagate religious and ethnic values in Trinidad. Chinese immigrants were more generally assimilated along with their foods, such as steamed fish and stir-fried vegetables, which became an important part of Cuban cuisine (Lambert Ortiz 1986: 7, 352; Vertovec 1990: 89-111; Mackie 1991: 144).

New Peasants, Old Problems

Caribbean slaves, once freed from the plantations, proceeded to form what Mintz (1974: 132) has called a “reconstituted” peasantry. Across the Caribbean, tens of thousands of freedmen and their families abandoned the lowland estates to build new villages in the highlands where sugarcane did not grow. The new yeoman farmers enlarged their provision grounds and expanded the production of export crops, such as all-spice(Pimenta officinalis), coffee (Coffea arabica), bananas, cotton, ginger, and arrowroot, which had been grown for the first time during the later slave period. Improved nutrition led to a dramatic fall in the infant mortality rate, and African-Americans in the Caribbean finally began to reproduce their numbers naturally. The population of Jamaica, for example, nearly doubled in the half century after emancipation. And despite political turmoil, Haiti likewise recorded demographic growth in the nineteenth century, a clear indication that the revolution improved conditions for the island’s black majority (Kiple 1984: 118; Watts 1987: 456-64, 507-15).

In the twentieth century, population growth accelerated to dangerous levels, however, as a result of government programs to control disease and improve nutrition. Mosquito eradication campaigns finally began to bring yellow fever and malaria under control around the turn of the century. Authorities acted more slowly to alleviate the problems of malnutrition; nevertheless, by the 1970s, most of the islands had begun educational campaigns aimed at promoting adequate childhood nutrition. After 1959, Fidel Castro brought Cuba to the forefront of the movement to improve the health of rural children. Unfortunately, these reforms stimulated Caribbean population growth at rates in excess of 3 percent annually from 1950 to 1970—some of the highest rates in the world. And ever-increasing populations have placed enormous pressure on island ecology. For example, Haitian peasants now cultivate subsistence crops on mountain slopes so steep that they need ropes to support themselves. The resulting erosion makes it even more difficult to sustain agriculture on the island (May and McLellan 1973: 145, 174, 220; Kiple 1984: 175-87; Watts 1987: 518).

Dietary deficiency diseases continue to afflict children throughout the Caribbean. Statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reveal that the inhabitants of several islands, particularly Hispaniola, consume significantly below the recommended dietary allowances of vitamins and minerals. And because these figures represent nationwide averages, the poorest segments of Caribbean society suffer serious malnutrition. In the 1970s, the FAO estimated that protein-calorie deficiency strikes 30,000 to 50,000 Jamaican children, with the most serious cases exhibiting symptoms of kwashiorkor and marasmus. Moreover, studies of childhood deaths on the island indicate that a majority are nutrition related, and fully a third may have resulted directly from malnutrition. A survey of children in the Dominican Republic found only 25 percent with adequate nutrition levels, and of those admitted to hospitals, 39 percent suffered from kwashiorkor and 90 percent from anemia. Haiti recorded one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, with 146.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in the 1970s. And village surveys found Haitian children to be as seriously malnourished as those of the neighboring Dominican Republic (May and McLellan 1973: 125, 177, 225; Kiple 1984: 184-6).

The problems of food shortages have been exacerbated by government attempts to implement crash industrialization programs and reliance on imported food. Such a lack of self-sufficiency was not unusual; as early as the 1880s, the small island of St. Pierre had become so dependent on canned foods from the United States that an American steamer was called a “food ship.” Nevertheless, industrialization programs further reduced the region’s capacity to support itself, as Puerto Rico’s “Operation Bootstrap” demonstrated, beginning in 1949. Although aggregate incomes rose dramatically, the problem of unemployment remained, and in 1974 the United States government was forced to extend the food stamp program to the island. This, in turn, distorted the local economy, creating black markets in goods and labor and ruining the island’s small farmers. It meant not only that people bought rice from California instead of the countryside but also that they discarded traditional dishes in favor of sugar-laden processed foods. Elsewhere in the region, the urban poor could not afford expensive imports, leading to widespread malnutrition and, at times, political unrest, such as the 1984 food riots in the Dominican Republic (Hearn 1970: 294; Weisskoff 1985: 60-4; Dietz 1986: 27, 63, 122; Knight 1990: 323).

Socialist Cuba attempted to balance modernization with equality, but despite some initial success, by the 1990s hunger had become widespread. Prior to Castro’s revolution, malnutrition had been a serious problem in the Cuban countryside, with the daily diet deficient by 1,000 calories. Although Castro created a successful rural health-care system, initial mistakes in agricultural development led to a reliance on subsidies from the Soviet Union. By the mid-1980s imports had fallen from one-third of total food consumption to below 20 percent, at the same time that per capita intake of calories and proteins increased. But just a few years later, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe closed markets for Cuban sugar and ended the subsidized petroleum supplies. While ration cards had long been a fact of life, in the early 1990s hunger, again, became a serious problem (Zimbalist and Brundenius 1989: 103-9; Miller 1992: 130-3).

The failure of Caribbean industrialization has driven millions to flee the region in search of a better life. Puerto Ricans, taking advantage of their United States citizenship, have flooded into New York, particularly the South Bronx. New York has also become home to large numbers of Jamaicans, Haitians, and Dominicans, while Cuban refugees have turned Miami into the second largest Cuban city. Shortly before Dutch Guiana became the independent state of Suri-name in 1975, nearly 40 percent of the population had migrated to the Netherlands. The human tragedy of such an exodus from the Caribbean is best illustrated by the boatloads of Haitians braving the sea to escape the successive dictatorships and intense poverty of their homeland (Richardson 1989: 203-28).

Transnational Cuisine

The Caribbean people have been relatively slow to adopt the concept of nationalism, either within individual island states or as a pan-Caribbean phenomenon. This has resulted, in part, from the lingering colonial presence of the United States and European powers. Most of the British Antilles did not gain their independence until the 1970s, and foreign rule persisted until recently in the Netherlands Antilles. The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are part of the United States, just as Guiana, Guadeloupe, and Martinique are French departments. None of these has achieved the status of an independent nation. The diversity of ethnic origins has likewise impeded the formation of Caribbean nationalism, as even basic definitions of “race” within the region defy easy explanation (Mintz 1974: 315-24). Finally, massive migration, both from the islands to former colonial capitals and among different islands, has diffused the pressure for unifying nationalist ideologies. Yet, for all the regional and ethnic diversity, it is nevertheless possible, as Mintz (1974) has shown, to identify a uniquely Caribbean culture and cuisine.

Of course, the Caribbean traveler could find many different styles of cooking, perhaps the least representative being that served in tourist hotels. A typical menu might include fresh grilled fish, garnished with tropical fruits and washed down with a rum cocktail. But for the majority of the people in the Greater Antilles, seafood has meant salt cod rather than fresh fish. Moreover, hotel restaurants import the majority of their foods; even the tropical fruits often come from Florida. And those “authentic” island recipes, generally, have little real connection with the foods of the common people. Bonham Richardson (1992: 109) noted that visitors “find the mock authenticity of tourist-oriented dinner menus appealing, but they probably would not tolerate the fare consumed by Caribbean working classes.”

While tourists seek sanitized versions of local cuisine, the natives have turned in ever-greater numbers to processed foods from the United States and Europe. Each new import, from spaghetti and canned soups to Nescafé and Johnny Walker, gains gourmet status because of its high cost, and poor islanders suffer acute embarrassment if they cannot offer guests a can of Spam (Wilson 1973: 22, 107).The adoption of Western consumption patterns led one Bahamian housewife to declare that she had given up preparing meals because her family “snacks outside continuously” (May and McLellan 1973: 13). Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken have become common on the islands, and even socialist Cuba has succumbed to the lure of pizza parlors. The 1989 opening of the first McDonald’s in Barbados saw serious traffic jams as cars lined up to enter the drive-through lane (Kurlansky 1992: 98).

Despite the encroachment of processed foods, however, it is still possible to recognize a peasant-based, pan-Caribbean cuisine. The simultaneous diversity and continuity of this food can be seen in the ubiquitous meal of rice and beans. This combination appears in Spanish-speaking islands as moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), among French dominions as pois et riz (beans and rice), and in Jamaica as rice and peas (although it is generally made with dried red beans instead of fresh pigeon peas). Regional variations exist, even within the larger islands. In Cuba, for example, the residents of Havana eat the small black beans of neighboring Yucatán, whereas people in Oriente Province prefer the red beans common to Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Many other methods exist for preparing the staple, rice, among the most extravagant of which are the Haitian favorite riz au djon-djon (rice with black mushrooms) and Venezuela’s rich, caramel arroz con coco(rice with coconut milk). Nevertheless, rice with beans remains the basis of regional cooking (Lambert Ortiz 1986: 258-82; Mintz 1974: 227; Sokolov 1991: 64).

Although relatively expensive compared to such root crops as cassava and yams, beans and rice provide a source of protein that is much cheaper than that from animal products. Neither beans nor rice alone yields a high-quality protein because the former lacks the essential amino acids methionine and cystine, while the latter is deficient in lysine. But together, each offsets the deficiency in the other, creating a complete amino acid chain that allows the body to build tissue efficiently. This nutritional synergism seems all the more fortuitous given that the American bean did not encounter Asian rice until after 1492 (Sanjur 1970: 26).

Similar eclectic combinations abound throughout the Caribbean. Codfish and akee, the national dish of Jamaica, originated with slaves who mixed the salt fish rations provided by planters with the akee fruit, an African domesticate that did not arrive in the island until 1778. Another common dish dating back to the period of slavery is callaloo soup, which takes its name from the leaves of the taro, and also includes okra and salt pork. Tamales, corn confections originally from Mexico, are widely prepared in Cuba, Martinique, and Venezuela. The dish most commonly associated with the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe is, ironically, a curry, le colombo. Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz (1986: 2) has observed that the identification of a food with a particular island has little to do with the dish’s origins because of the wide travels of gifted cooks. It is this constant migration of diverse peoples that has defined the culture and cuisine of the Caribbean.