Food provides important insights into the biological and cultural dimensions of the Latin American past. The emphasis in Chilies to Chocolate leans toward the biological, but includes enough social and cultural observations to satisfy the historian. The result is a collection of essays that combine elements of natural and social history to describe American contributions to global food systems.
The foods selected for discussion include the well-known beans, chilies, chocolate, maize, potatoes, tomatoes, and vanilla; discussion of the lesser-known grains amaranth and quinoa and several of the secondary tubers of the Andean region (oca, arracacha, and maca, to mention a few) gives the book added value. While each contributor approaches the subject from a different perspective, most have an interest in the question of food's diffusion. This lends some unity to an otherwise heterogeneous collection of essays. The most rigorously historical essay is by Jean Andrews on the spread of chilies outside the Americas. The essays by Daniel K. Early on amaranth and John F. McCamant on quinoa bring the story of diffusion up to the present, detailing the interesting story of recent attempts to spread the cultivation of these grains in the United States and to revive it in Latin America. In the epilogue, Gary Paul Naban argues the need to preserve traditional seeds and farming practices. Despite the diffusion of foods, the Americas have suffered a large net loss of food seeds.
The book is written for the general audience rather than the specialist. Footnotes are not used, and the bibliography is slight, ignoring much of the extant work on the history of food and all non-English-language sources. With exceptions, the book’s historical as opposed to its natural history sections are the weakest. Nevertheless, as an introduction to some of the more interesting foods of the Americas, the book succeeds. It brings together the social and the biological, and at times goes beyond them to analyze the policy implications that have resulted from the blending of Old and New World plants and food habits.