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date: 18 April 2024

Colonial Era Food and Spicefree

Colonial Era Food and Spicefree

  • Amanda E. HerbertAmanda E. HerbertDurham University


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Food Studies. Please check back later for the full article.

Growth of the British colonial system also meant big changes to British diets and to the spice and flavor of British food. Britain’s actions in invading, colonizing, and settling the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean worlds gave British people, both at home and abroad, access to many new ingredients. In 1972, historian Alfred W. Crosby identified the early modern global exchange of animals, plants, and— crucially and tragically—diseases and pathogens, as the “Columbian Exchange,” a cataclysmic biological moment instigated by Christopher Columbus, in which separate biomes came into sustained contact for the first time. Scholars have since expanded the scope of this study, with Judith Carney, Edda Fields-Black, and Jessica B. Harris, among many others, drawing critical attention to the fact that the Columbian Exchange was a global phenomenon, and that while this was a moment of wonder and curiosity for some, it meant utter devastation for many others.

In this globalizing early modern world, the rapid and widespread movement of people, plants, and animals changed the ways that British Atlantic people flavored their food. Using ingredients from the Americas, cooks gained access to vanilla, chili, and new kinds of palm oil. From the African continent, they learned of peppermint, cottonseed oil, coffee, and sesame. And from Asia, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, and mace became staples in British Atlantic kitchens. Some of these spices and flavoring agents would have been familiar—cinnamon had been traded across the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia for hundreds of years—but others would have been novel. And all of them were now much more widely available, and were combined, altered, and adapted in fresh ways. For women and men in the British Atlantic world, this meant that foods like “pickled mango,” an entirely mango-free dish spiced with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and chilis, now had a spot at the table. It also meant that many different kinds of people, including Black women and men, Indigenous communities, and white settler-colonizers, seasoned their foods in new ways. Made possible by access to global markets, facilitated by invasion and colonisation, and undergirded by enslavement, British Atlantic foodways were both piquant and experimental.


  • Food History and Anthropology