Historical fiction—even alternate history—poses a unique challenge to authors: the ordinary circumstances of the past are not those of the present. In writing my novel, I came to a scene where the protagonist jury-rigs a primitive battery. This being 15th century Italy, this is a fairly impressive feat. I was ready to detail how she affixes wires to a potato and exploits this household root to produce a current.
Then I stopped. I had forgotten one important fact: there were no potatoes in 15th century Italy.
The world is home to over five thousand cultivars of potato. (Wikipedia, 2013) All of them are descended from the first varieties which the ancient inhabitants of Peru domesticated around 8000 to 5000 BCE. Potatoes and people have a long history. But not potatoes and European people: save for Leif Erikson hobnobbing around Newfoundland, no Europeans established contact with the Americas until Columbus’s 1492 voyage.
Columbus’s so-called discovery of America (so-called because its existence was only news to people who didn’t already live there), and the voyages which followed his, introduced the potato to the Old World. Not only did the potato make the leap: many other foods, which today we consider staples, originated in the Americas. Corn, chocolate (traditionally consumed as the bitter and spicy beverage xocolatl), vanilla, chili peppers (named after Eastern peppercorns), avocados, papaya, peanuts (which we usually associate with Asian cookery), pineapples, tomatoes and vanilla are all American foods adopted by the rest of the world. (About.com, 2013)
Though their adoption was not always rapid, these ingredients nonetheless profoundly affected world cuisine. In fact, many of what we consider ‘traditional’ ethnic foods did not exist until after contact with Americas—sometimes, centuries afterward. The Europeans adopted corn and potatoes quickly, but the Italians, whose cuisine we now consider inseparable from the tomato, did not use tomatoes frequently in cooking until the 18th or 19th century. The invention of pasta with tomato sauce is about recent as the Industrial Revolution. (Wikipedia, 2013) In fact, Italians originally used the tomato as a decorative plant, instead of an edible one. (Wikipedia, 2013) Indian curries frequently call for chili peppers which they have only had access to since the 16th century, while Thai curries would likely be impossible without those spicy vegetables.
While the changes brought about by New World ingredients were profound, the passing of time has rendered them mundane. To people of the modern world, even recent gastronomical inventions feel like perennial staples. It is easy to forget how, in centuries past, people lived differently. But when one’s trade involves writing fiction about the past, it is important to rediscover those differences.
Right now, that means I’ll have to find another household vegetable for my heroine to use as a battery.