Food History

Enrique Ochoa

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
Food History

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas


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Changes in food consumption, production, and nutrition patterns reflect the broad changes in Latin American history since before the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish. Food was closely intertwined with identity and local worldviews, and while food patterns varied depending on region, class, and local histories, most sedentary precolonial diets were largely vegetarian. With the onset of European colonization in 1492, indigenous culinary and food practices (foodways) began to sharply transform. In areas where Europeans settled, the introduction of Old World foods such as wheat, pork, and beef began to transform the landscape and diets. Coercive labor practices and changes in diet made indigenous populations more susceptible to disease and contributed to the massive deaths of indigenous populations. The forced relocation of Africans to the Americas through slavery also transformed diet in the Americas and introduced new crops and different ways of food preparation. Under the influence of the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans aggressively transformed indigenous ways of life through dislocations of populations as part of an expansion of export crops. Social Darwinian thought linked indigenous foods to backwardness and European foods to modernization, leading to an array of policies generally focused on women, and aimed at promoting the consumption of foods associated with Europe. Despite efforts to erase traditional food cultures through production and consumption policies, indigenous and mestizo communities struggled to maintain and transform their traditional foodways. Popular revolutionary struggles throughout the 20th century forced many governments to prioritize food production for internal consumption. In many countries this boosted basic food consumption for growing numbers of people and provided some support for traditional producers. Populist policies fostered the formation of national cuisines that integrated traditional ingredients and foods in a modernized fashion. With the onset of neoliberal globalization in the 1970s and 1980s, emphasis on food self-sufficiency was replaced by market-based policies driven by free-market ideologies backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. While proponents of free trade have argued that open markets would reduce the price of basic foods and increase consumption by the poor, there is mounting evidence that this has not occurred. Scholars have documented the growing inequality and rural poverty in much of Latin America, which has been exacerbated by the sharp increases in basic food prices from 2006 to 2008. This poverty has fueled migration and social unrest and has spurred renewed movements for land reform, indigenous and campesino (rural workers) rights, and food sovereignty.

Article.  11597 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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