In this book Ricardo Piqueras Céspedes combines historical and anthropological methods to explore the problems of food in Tierra Firme, a hostile land, unstable and far from Indian or European centers of settlement. He concentrates on the hueste, the band or expedition of Spaniards (and often Indian auxiliaries) who penetrated the interior, sometimes for months at a time, in search of trade and booty.
After a good introductory discussion of the hueste and the geographic features of Tierra Firme, Piqueras Céspedes begins a wide-ranging discussion of food. To organize his research and conclusions, he divides the history of the expeditions into four phases, each with its own discrete nutritional and organizational characteristics. In phase one, for example, food came from Spain, the Antilles, and points of departure along the coast of Tierra Firme; by the final phase, it came from the local environment, the leather of saddles and scabbards, and cannibalism. A useful addition to the discussion is a dictionary of food terms. Divided into the categories of cooking techniques and implements, vegetable and animal foods, and dishes and menus, the dictionary is useful, especially since it often gives the source of the definition. It represents a good start to what could be a valuable tool for Latin Americanists—a complete dictionary of words and phrases associated with food.
According to the author, the scarcity of food turned into hunger and then disease, making the expeditions little more than walking infirmaries. The evidence does not support this interpretation. Of the few examples offered, climate and water, more often than lack of food, led to disease. The author describes the diseases, but gives insufficient attention to their frequency and to the effectiveness of attempts to alleviate them. The same criticism applies to the discussion of food. Food items are mentioned, but not the amounts and frequency of consumption. The source materials, heavily weighted toward the descriptions of the chroniclers, prevent a careful, quantitative assessment of nutrition and health. More attention to the secondary literature on food and early Latin America might have helped Piqueras Céspedes overcome some of the problems created by his sources.
Despite the limits of the evidence, the author does offer new and valuable perspectives on food. He introduces the concept of the “cuisine of the conquistadores” to explore the organizational and cultural characteristics of food. By tracing the storage and preparation techniques of food from Atlantic voyages to treks into the interior of Tierra Firme, as one example, he suggests how the technical problems of food changed, and how they may have influenced the social organization of the expeditions.
In the concluding chapters, Piqueras Céspedes elaborates on the symbolic importance of his subject. He stresses the interplay between gold and food, now interpreted as representations of the two driving but conflicting forces of the conquest. Gold represented the dreams and desires of the early creation of Latin America, the hopes of the first generation of Spaniards who searched for “el Dorado.” Food, the need for sustenance, represented the hard reality of the new land, and often the frustration and failure of the dreams. The tension between gold and food is seen on many levels. Spaniards, in order to secure gold, abused and exploited Indians; at the same time they depended on Indians to provide the food that allowed their search for gold to continue. This inherent contradiction has been used many times to explain the tensions of early colonization, but Piqueras Céspedes gives it new twists.
This is a good book. By concentrating on a neglected area and the experiences of the hueste, it broadens our understanding of the sixteenth century and makes a significant contribution to the growing body of literature on the history of food and Latin America.