The Canary Islands Connection

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The Canary Islands Connection

I am surrounded by date palms. 


Around them run dry watercourses that look like ones I find not far from my home in Tucson, Arizona. The traditional architecture in town would not be out of place in Tucson, either — or almost anywhere from southern Spain to Mexico and up into the southwest U.S. 

The fruit trees and grapevines hark back even further, to traditions of my ancestors from Syria and Lebanon. Perhaps this is what a visit to the Canary Islands is really all about. Indeed, much of what is cultivated on this Spanish archipelago of seven volcanic, mostly undersea mountains can be traced back to crops that came aboard ships from as far away as Phoenicia, in the eastern Mediterranean, as far back to the 8th century BCE.


But no less striking are the echoes here of what went westward, to the areas I’ve known for most of my adult life in the arid New World landscapes of the “desert borderlands” of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. This includes, on the U.S. side, southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado and west Texas; on the Mexican side, the states of Baja California, Sonora and Chihuahua; and cities from Ensenada to San Antonio.

For more than a dozen years, I have been tracing agricultural and culinary influences shared among communities from the Levant to North Africa and southern Spain, and from the Canary Islands to Mexico and the vast North American desert borderlands region. The journey makes me think of a string of beads, each distinct, but reflecting one another along a common chain.


Here in these islands I can smell the same flowers — orange blossoms, rose, and jasmine — in both the gardens and patios of Córdoba in Spain, and those of my uncles and aunts in Lebanon’s semiarid Bekaa Valley. 

I can taste the same foods, literally from A to Z: meatballs spiced with parsley, onion and garlic called albóndigas; eggplants stuffed with fruits or ground meats called berenjena rellenas, swimming in creamy walnut sauce topped with pomegranate seeds; a kind of biscuit dusted with powdered sugar and laced with the bite of anise called biscochitos. There are callos of tripe sautéed with chickpeas; empanadas stuffed with chard or spinach; kebabs, or asados, marinated in spices and olive oil, strung on skewers and grilled, and fritters dowsed in orange syrup or honey called zalabias.


I can see prickly pear cacti and towering, flowering stalks of agaves such as sisal. I can taste the cactus juices, feel the texture of rich tomato pastes and revel in the heat of chili peppers stuffed with cheeses. All these and more were once agricultural passengers from the Americas transplanted to the Canaries and far beyond to a world eager for novelty and nutrition. It was the eastbound leg of what is known historically as the Columbian Exchange, which began with the Spanish arrival in the West Indies more than 500 years ago.

Of the many questions that swirl around in my head, there is just one really big one: How did people of Arab ancestry — people of all faiths and geographical origins who may claim the name, in whole or in part — come to play roles in shaping what grows today in the region that includes Tucson, where I live? And how does that affect what I eat?


To deepen my search, I head for the Canaries, home of important, but not always well-known, “bridges” between Old and New Worlds. I pay a visit to noted Spanish and Arabic speaking agricultural ecologist Jaime Gil, and he guides me to Lanzarote, the easternmost island, which once had the largest population of people the Spanish referred to as Moriscos. 


Like many such ethnonyms, Morisco meant somewhat different things over different times and places. Most frequently it meant Muslims of North African or Iberian descent, who in the wake of the Spanish bans on Islam, Judaism, and Protestantism from the late 15th to well into the 17th centuries, either converted, or under duress, outwardly professed conversion to Christianity. 


Gil also explains that just as the term Morisco has carried diverse meanings, so too has Converso, which was used to identify Sephardic Jews as well as Protestants who had to renounce or conceal their faith from Spanish authorities.


While the number of members of each faith affected by Spain’s religious edicts are unknown, historians generally agree it is in the hundreds of thousands for both Moriscos and Conversos. Demographic historian Trevor Dadson and ethnohistorian Karoline Cook have explained that the numbers are difficult to assess because emigrants frequently either concealed their background in official port of embarkation records or avoided documentation altogether. 


Though ruled by Spain then as now, the Canaries for a while lay at a relatively safe distance from both the Crown and the Inquisition, Dadson says. 


But the islands soon became overpopulated. Then the reach of the Inquisition spread, and the Crown’s price for an official name change — a symbolic ritual called “blood cleansing” that was a tantamount profession of Catholicism — became out of reach for both native born Canarians and immigrant Moriscos. A voyage to the terra incognita — the West Indies and the Americas — became more attractive, despite the risks and uncertainties. 


It was in this way that New World Moriscos and Conversos came with incentive to settle as far from the Inquisition tribunals as possible. In continental North America, many chose to head north to the arid hinterlands — especially after the establishment in 1610 of the Inquisitional Court in Mexico City. The austere lands of the Sonoran Highlands may have also been attractive because they likely reminded the newcomers of the semiarid lands of al-Andalus, as the parts of southern Spain under Muslim rule were called. 


In these remote outposts, from Tucson to Santa Fe to San Antonio, it seems that only a few were in fact arrested by Spanish authorities and charged with blasphemy, heresy or adherence to non-Christian food taboos and forced to travel to Mexico City for interrogation. Fewer still, it appears, were brought to trial, and yet even fewer were convicted, imprisoned or executed.


Records point to what scholars are coming to see as a practice by both Moriscos and Conversos to adopt new surnames that referenced animals or plants, and trees in particular. Fittingly, those who chose to adopt such surnames appear to be among those who helped introduce and adapt what number more than 50 kinds of Old World crops and animals. 

Today we can make food-historical links, because by the time they arrived, these food crops were mostly called by names that were already in use in Iberia, and often also in the Canaries.

Along with Middle Eastern fruit crops like date palms — which arrived in Mexico as early as the 1530s — there came also figs, pomegranates, olives, and grapes; there came spices like anise, coriander, cumin, fennel, and safflower. Settlers essentially reconstructed the oases of their former homelands, using irrigation systems of qanats and acequias as models to better farm crops they knew best how to farm. They complemented these with plantings learned from Native American tribes, most famously squashes, beans, peppers, and maize. 

Recently, historians have received help from geneticists in tracing the origins of crop and livestock species. The Mission olive, a cultivar of Olea europea, prized in Arizona and the Californias, is closely related to both the Andalusian variety, Cañivano Negro, and its Moroccan counterpart, Picholine Marroquine, for instance. 

Such discoveries of shared farming and food heritages, both large and small, now have support on a global scale through the UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy, which is part of the greater Creative Cities Network program. Out of 26 cities worldwide, three in the desert borderlands now belong to the gastronomical network — Tucson, San Antonio, and Ensenada — and Santa Fe participates as a UNESCO Creative City.

These affiliations are putting contemporary chefs and food historians in closer contact both with their own histories and with one another. Cultural culinary creatives from Spain, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran are all engaging with North American counterparts.

And for me now, whether I am biting into a hot empanada in Tucson, savoring grapes in the Canaries or sitting down to lunch on my cousins’ farms in Lebanon, I feel more connected than ever along this necklace of history strung across a hemisphere. 

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