The history of new foods in India

Konnichiwa, Varshney-san. Your post on the potato inspired me to read the papers you mentioned as well as a reference suggested by a friend here in Chicago:

Sucheta Mazumdar, “The Impact of New World Food Crops on the Diet and Economy of China and India, ca. 1600-1900.” Food in Global History. Ed. Raymond Grew. Westview Press, 1999. 58-78.

The Columbian Exchange refers to the interchange of foodstuffs, technologies, and disease after European contact with the Americas. In exchange for offering pestilence, brutal colonialism, and genocide, Europeans got a variety of staple crops with which they could support their burgeoning populations and which would later sustain the Industrial Revolution:

The exchange introduced a wide range of new calorically rich staple crops to the Old World—namely potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. The primary benefifit of the New World staples was that they could be grown in Old World climates that were unsuitable for the cultivation of Old World staples. (Nunn and Qian)

In addition, the discovery of quinine in the Andes enabled Europeans to invade and colonize tropical regions. In addition to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, this expansion introduced the widespread planting of cash crops such as rubber in Africa. Being an economics paper, there are some sobering quantitative measures to drive home the horrors of colonial exploitation:

The population of the Congo is estimated to have been about 25 million prior the rubber boom, in the 1880s. In 1911, after the peak of the boom, the population was 8.5 million, and in 1923 after the completion of the boom, it was 7.7 million. If one compares the population losses relative to the production of rubber, an astonishing conclusion is reached: an individual was “lost” from the Congo for every ten kilograms of rubber exported (Loadman, 2005, pp. 140–41).

The potato paper covers the effect of potatoes and tries to estimate (numerically) the impact potato cultivation had on population growth and urbanization in Europe. It is somewhat elusive to me what such a quantification “means,” but it’s of a piece with what Ian Hacking describes in The Taming of Chance : the torrent of printed numbers led to the publication of attendant “studies” slicing and dicing the numbers in statistical ways in order to “make sense” of them. The second Nunn and Qian paper covers capsicum, tomatoes, cacao, vanilla, coca, and tobacco, and contains some fun nutritional facts and trivia:

  • Capsicum is high in vitamins A, B and C, magnesium, and iron, and the extra saliva produced by capsacin helps digestion.
  • “Greece consumes the most tomatoes per capita… The tomato has been so thoroughly adopted and integrated into Western diets that today it provides more nutrients and vitamins than any other fruit or vegetable (Sokolov, 1993, p. 108).”
  • “[I]n Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole, his men were allocated 4,560 calories per day, of which over 1,000 came from cacao (West, 1992, pp. 117–18).”

My interest came more from vegetables that almost define Indian cuisine : tomatoes, potatoes, and chilies. Mazumdar’s article focuses on the effect new crops had on China and India. Specific to this context,

There were two major periods of introduction of American plants into Asia. The first wave, in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, included sweet potatoes, maize, potatoes, jicamas, capsicums (chile peppers), squashes, and peanuts, cashews, custard apples, guavas, avocadoes, tomatoes, papaya, passion-fruit, pineapples, and sapodillas… In the second wave, American plants, such as cocoa and the sunflower, were brought to India even more recently in the twentieth century.

With them came new words of course — South Asian readers may know of a certain fruit as sapota (in the south) or chiku (in the north), both of which come from a Meso-American word (not sure of the language) chicosapote. The word achar for pickles came from the Carib axi meaning chile pepper.

The paper draws a distinction between how land ownership practices in India and China made a difference in how fast new foods were incorporated into the common diet. In China, a number of reforms allowed “tenancy rights to become inheritable” for peasants, meaning they had an incentive to say in place and try to extract more productivity from the land they had. The new crops, especially the sweet potato, became staples because they provided more calories per acre, and because they were drought- and pest-resistant, required less labor (especially over rice), and could grow in poor soil. Mazumdar writes:

[In the 1920s in south China] sweet potatoes regularly provided a supply of at least three to four months’ worth or food for practically everybody living in the countryside… they were eaten fresh, baked, boiled, or mashed with pickles.. ground into flour and made into noodles, bread, or a gruel… or stirred into a hash.

The sweet potato revolutionized the lives of peasants in China, giving them more calories and freeing time and labor to grow cash crops. Corn and peanuts were also widely cultivated, since corn could also grow in nutrient-poor soils and peanuts are good nitrogen-fixers and could be grown with sugarcane.

India was a different story — there was more arable land and “relatively low population growth between 1600 and 1850.” Due to military conflicts and tensions with zamindars (landlords), villages would often up and leave, transplanting themselves further from conflict or interference. This meant that unlike China, rural farmers were not as tied to specific locations during this period. Colonialism changed all that — people were pinned down and agriculture was commercialized, so in the 19th and 20th centuries American crops started flourishing. The Brits promoted the potato heavily, and increased urbanization brought it and the tomato into the mainstream. Although it’s hard to think of Indian food without tomatoes, potatoes, and chilies, these ingredients were only integrated around 150 years ago!



Troubles in how science is marketed to girls.

Human remains at Richard III’s grave! (That sounds like a cryptic clue but it isn’t).

An interesting take on Karachi, but I’d want a local’s opinion of it…

The case of Aseem Trivedi is a real travesty.

Bad Lip Reading does a number on Mitt Romney. They’ve also done Obama.


Did I mention I love the Chicago Public Library? It can be frustrating at times, but the main branch is right on my way to and from work.

The Magician King (Lev Grossman) — The sequel to The Magicians, sometimes described as Hipsters in Narnia. This book is actually darker, if such a thing as possible. I think it’s interesting to look at it plotted in terms of the lives of likely readers. The first book is for college kids. The second is for post-college working kids who have nice jobs and realize that their lives feel a bit empty.

Odd and The Frost Giants (Neil Gaiman) — I’ve been on a children’s book kick. A lovely little tale set in Viking mythos.

The Alchemyst, The Magician, The Sorceress (Michael Scott) — Children’s/YA fantasy series. I had mixed feelings about it but it featured John Dee as a villain, and having read so much of Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, I was interested in Dee as a character. Very different here — he’s a supervillain.

The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum) — A fascinating tale about the rise of the medical examiner’s office and forensic medicine. The descriptions of how to detect various poisons in the tissues of the deceased is not for the squeamish!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot) — This book tells the story of the cell line HeLa, taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American patient in the 50s who died of cancer. Her cells were able to multiply on their own in the lab and ushered in a new era of research, but the way she and her family were treated epitomizes the ethical void at the heart of many scientists’ view of human subjects research. Despite this being an important story to tell, Skloot manages to make a lot of the story about herself — there’s a rather vigorous critique here.

1Q84 (Haruki Murakami) — Pretty classic Murakami, but a little more focused in content if expansive in scope. Investigates in fictional form some of the cult phenomena that seem to have captured his imagination lately. Critical opinion has been pretty divided, but I’d recommend it if you like Murakami, but not as an intro to his oeuvre.

The Atrocity Archive (Charles Stross) — sysadmins battle Cthulhu-eqsue horrors from the beyond. This is the first book in the Laundry series, and while the narrator is entertaining, I’ll probably give the rest of the series a pass.

Halting State (Charles Stross) — a near-future in which massive fraud/theft in an online game threatens to undermine the real economy. Takes gold farming and selling of WoW stuff on eBay to its extreme and then looks at what happens. Stross is good at extrapolating economic scenarios, and this was certainly more fun to read.



This is an awesome approach to getting consensus on neighborhood boundaries in Boston. They should do that for Chicago!

A history of currywurst.

Classical Movies in Miniature Style. I like the horses in the Terminator II picture.

I have a rather long-ish commute on public transit, and sometimes it’s hard to get a seat on the train/bus, so I’ve been listening to a lot more podcasts. Here are a few which I’ve been enjoying recently:

  • 99% Invisible, which is a design podcast. I’ve been catching up from the beginning, but this little bit on flags may appeal to Chicagoans and San Franciscans.
  • Backstory is a podcast about American History. They usually take a theme (e.g. “national monuments,” “birth,”, “booze”) and do a number of segments running through different centuries.
  • Story Collider : story telling about science(-ish).

Music with giant Tesla coils.

Dogs and cats and babies can get along.



The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (Olaudah Equiano) — a classic autobiography of a 18th century African who was captured and sold into slavery, managed to save enough to buy his freedom, and then had a number of adventures in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Arctic. It’s a real window into the time period as well as one of the oldest textual accounts of Europeans through African eyes during that period.

That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (Carlo Emilio Gadda) — a allegorical murder mystery / police investigation. The use of language is dazzling, but the plot, as such, is a bit flat. Recommended for those who like florid prose, extreme vocabulary, and political satire. In this case Gadda is mocking fascism. It may be appealing to those who liked The Master and Margarita.

Red Plenty (Francis Spufford) — a lightly fictionalized history of the moment when it looked like central planning was going to work in the Soviet Union, and how it all then fell apart (later to be buoyed by oil prices). A tremendously engaging book about a moment in history that we never hear about in the US due to our stupid jingoistic Cold War know-nothing attitude. There was also a Crooked Timber event on it, which I am going to read now.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns — an engaging fantasy set in pseudo-Iberian (or colonial South American?) land. A bit heavy on the religion aspect, but that’s the world she builds at least. Has some of the endemic race issues that much fantasy suffers from, but that might get mixed up in later books.

Re-imagining Milk (Andrea S. Wiley) — a short monograph on the history, biology, and anthropology of milk consumption. It’s full of interesting analysis and critique of how the purported health benefits of milk drinking after weaning intersect with policy. For example, why push milk consumption as a public health issue in parts of Africa when many/most people cannot process lactose? Why do we call the (normal) process in which the body stops producing lactase with the pejorative “lactose intolerance”? See also this piece by Mark Bittman on the NY Times site.

A Conspiracy of Paper (David Liss) — a mystery novel set before the South Sea Bubble and full of gritty and grimy London locales, brawling, the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, and some discussions of probability . The book grew out of dissertation research, so it’s meticulously researched, although some of the probability discussion seems ahistorical (c.f. Ian Hacking).


Tracking the origin of genies

Lalitha Sankar asked Gerhard Kramer about my earlier question about genies. Gerhard wrote:

I got the name from Jim Massey who had suggested it as part of a title for the thesis of another doctoral student I know.

I have heard this attributed to Gallager, but the word “genie” might even come up in the Wozencraft-Jacobs book from the mid-60s (not sure!). I suspect that it goes back even further.

A little further searching along those directions turned up some more hits. On page 366 of Viterbi and Omura’s 1978 text Principles of Digital Communication and Coding, while discussing the distribution of computation in convolutional codes they write “[W]e begin by considering a sequential decoder aided by a benevolent genie who oversees the decoder action on each incorrect subset.”

But indeed, as Gerhard indicates, there is a reference in Wozencraft and Jacobs (1965). From Rimoldi and Urbanke’s paper on rate splitting, they write “[C]onceptually, we follow the lead of Wozencraft and Jacobs [29, p. 419] and postulate a genie who always knows the codeword of user 2…” Following up on that reference, in reference to the decoding of convolutional codes, Wozencraft and Jacobs write “… assume initially that a magic genie directs the decoder to the correct starting node for determining each \hat{x}_h…”

In the bibliographic notes in Viterbi and Omura, they write

As was noted previously, the original sequential decoding algorithm was proposed and analyzed by Wozencraft [1957]. The Fano algorithm [1963], with various minor modifications, has been analyzed by Yudkin [1964], Wozencraft and Jacobs [1965], Gallager [1968], and Jelinek [1968a]. Two versions of stack algorithms and their performance analyses are due to Zigangirov [1966] and Jelinek [1969a]. The precise form of the Pareto distribution on computation emerged from the works of Savage [1966] for the upper bound, and of Jacobs and Berlekamp [1967] for the lower bound.

So it seems that if the argument is due to Wozencraft, the source of the genie argument in this context is probably due to the Wozencraft and Jacobs book, but the credit for the analogy to genies is probably lost in time to us.



A Moveable Feast (Kenneth F. Kiple) : The first half is a somewhat condensed version of the Cambridge World History of Food and covers different plants and foodstuffs from around the world. The rest of the book is about how eating habits changed over time as food exchange has diversified and now homogenized our eating habits. The only problem with the book is that it has a fair bit of apocrypha and debunked origin stories, so YMMV. I enjoyed it.

Are You My Mother? (Alison Bechdel) : Bechdel’s memoir about her relationship with her mother. It is stuffed to the brim with references to D.W. Winnicott, which can be a plus or minus depending on whether you like psychoanalysis. I thought it was engaging and worth reading, but to be honest I am not sure to whom I would recommend it. I feel like if you read the synopsis and think it sounds interesting, you will like it, and if not, you won’t.

The Learners (Chip Kidd) : This is a follow-up to The Cheese Monkeys, which I rather enjoyed. The Learners is a little leaner but still has those nerdy and fun (to me, tedious to others) asides on the art of graphic design and typography. The Milgram experiment features prominently, so if you are fascinated by that you might also like this as a piece of (sort of) historical fiction.

This Is A Bust (Ed Lin) : A novel set in New York’s Chinatown in the 1970’s and featuring Vietnam vet and alcoholic token Chinese cop Robert Chow as he struggles to turn his life around and find himself. It’s the first in a series and I will probably read the rest. Recommended for those who like detective novels.

Fisher, Neyman, and the Creation of Classical Statistics (Erich L. Lehmann) : The title says it all. It’s more about the personalities and their history than it is particularly about the math, but there’s a nice discussion at the end of Fisher’s confusing notion of fiducial probability and Neyman’s confidence intervals. I think it’s hard to put yourself back in that time period when people really didn’t have a good sense of how to think about these kind of statistical problems (maybe we still don’t have a good idea). Fisher’s work has become near-dogma now (unfortunately), but it’s interesting to see how these basic frequentist methods came about historically. Plus you get to learn more about the enigmatic “Student!” Recommended for those with an interest in the history of statistics.