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Historian Reveals Christmas Dinner Wouldn’t be the Same Without the Aztecs and Columbus

Originally published 23 December 2003

We have Christopher Columbus and Latin American Indians to thank for many of the foods, such as turkey, roast potatoes and vanilla ice-cream that we now eat as part of a ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner, says Historian Dr Rebecca Earle from the University of Warwick.

Many modern-day festive foods and year-round treats are from Latin America and were unknown to the rest of the world until Spain’s conquest of the Americas and European colonialism spread them around the globe. These foods played important roles in the diets of Native Americans, and it is the Aztecs, even more than Columbus, whom we should thank when we bite into a chocolate Christmas dessert.

Many traditional seasonal dishes and ingredients have Latin American origins:
Turkey is native to Mexico and North America. In French it's called a 'dinde', which comes from 'De Inde', which means 'from the Indies'- the Indies are the Americas, as in 'the West Indies'. We shouldn't really call it a 'turkey' at all!

Potatoes are from Peru. It took them a long time to catch on in Europe. It wasn't until the 18th Century that they started to be widely eaten in Western Europe.

Chocolate is from Mexico and Central America. The Aztecs and the Maya Indians drank it, and people didn't figure out how to make it into candy or chocolate bars until the 19th Century. To the Aztecs and the Maya it was a very high-class drink reserved for princes and warriors. The ancient tribes did not usually drink it sweetened, as they preferred to add chile and other spices. Their elite chocolate beverages bore little relation to chocolate desserts we now tuck into, or the bars we can now buy at petrol stations.

Vanilla ice cream is now a popular option to go with Christmas pudding. Vanilla flavouring comes from a seedpod from Mexico, and was unknown in Europe before the Europeans started colonising the Americas after Columbus's first journey in 1492. So there was no choice of chocolate or vanilla ice creams for Europeans before Columbus.

Bourbon whisky (like Jack Daniels) is a typical after Christmas dinner tipple that is distilled from maize. Maize is another plant native to Latin America. There were lots of distilled alcoholic beverages in Europe before Columbus's arrival in the Americas, but this was not one of them.

Dr Rebecca Earle, from the History Department of the University of Warwick, said:
“Festive food has evolved over the ages, but many edible table centre-pieces have Latin American origins. For example, today turkey is often regarded as the usual Christmas meal but appeared on the menu only around 1650 after European colonisation of Mexico and North America, and didn't become a commonplace Christmas dish until the 20th Century.”

Dr Rebecca Earle, Department of History, University of Warwick , Tel: 01926 420 533 or 02476 523 466 Mobile: 07817 848237.

Jenny Murray, Communications Office, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255 or Mobile: 07876 217740 Email: