In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Food History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections and Journals
  • Staple Foods and Commodity Histories
  • Maize
  • Pre-Columbian Foodways
  • Colonial Latin America
  • The Caribbean
  • Central America
  • Mexico: The Long 19th Century
  • Mexico: 20th Century
  • South America: Through the 19th Century
  • South America: 20th Century
  • Latinx and Transnational Latin American Food Cultures
  • Agribusiness and Its Influences
  • The Green Revolution
  • Food and National Identities
  • Afro-Latin American and Indigenous Foodways
  • Gender, Labor, and Food
  • Neoliberalism and Free Trade
  • Social Movements and Food Sovereignty

Latin American Studies Food History
Enrique Ochoa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0057


Food consumption, production, and nutrition patterns reflect the broad changes in Latin American history since before the conquest of the Americas. Food was closely intertwined with identity and local worldviews, and while food patterns varied depending on region, class, and local histories, most sedentary precolonial diets were largely vegetarian. With the onset of European colonization in 1492, indigenous culinary and food practices (foodways) began to sharply transform. The introduction of foods predominant in the Eastern Hemisphere such as wheat, pork, and beef began to transform the landscape and diets. Coercive labor practices and changes in diet made indigenous populations more susceptible to disease and contributed to massive death. The enslavement of Africans also transformed diet in the Americas and introduced new crops and different ways of food preparation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans aggressively transformed indigenous ways of life through dislocations of populations as part of an expansion of export crops. The rise of nutrition sciences was shaped by Social Darwinism and eugenics and linked indigenous foods to poverty and indolence and European foods to increased productivity and modernization. This resulted in an array of policies generally focused on women, and aimed at promoting the consumption of foods associated with Europe. Despite efforts to erase traditional food cultures, indigenous, Afro-descendent, and mestizo communities struggled to maintain and transform their traditional foodways. Popular revolutionary struggles throughout the 20th century forced many governments to prioritize food production for internal consumption. This boosted basic food consumption for growing numbers of people and provided some support for traditional producers. Populist policies fostered the formation of national cuisines that integrated traditional ingredients and foods in a modernized fashion. With the onset of neoliberal globalization in the 1970s and 1980s, emphasis on food self-sufficiency was replaced by market-based policies driven by free-market ideologies backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. While proponents of free trade have argued that open markets would reduce the price of basic foods and increase consumption by the poor, this has not occurred. Scholars have documented the growing inequality and rural poverty in much of Latin America, which was exacerbated by the sharp increases in basic food prices from 2006 to 2008 and in the decline in access to foods during the COVID-19 pandemic. This poverty has fueled migration and social unrest and has spurred renewed movements for land reform, indigenous and campesino (rural workers) rights, and food sovereignty.

General Overviews

While there has yet to be a general history of food in Latin America, there are several global studies that address Latin America as whole or as specific countries. Pilcher 2014 and Pite and Ramirez Luhrs 2020 are excellent starting points for students and researchers of Latin American food history. Kiple 2007 provides overview of food in world history with ample coverage of the global south and Latin America in particular. Bauer 2001, an examination of Latin American material culture, is an important overview on the production and consumption of foods from the precolonial era to neoliberal times. Kloppenburg 1988 gives a global analysis of how capitalism has transformed seeds into a commodity, enriching a handful of corporations while alienating peasants from the land. Carney and Rosomoff 2009 demonstrates how, beginning with the Columbian exchange and slavery, Africa has had a profound botanical legacy on diets in the Americas. Janer 2007 applies a coloniality of power approach to the study of Latin American food history following the conquest to show how the systematic degradation of indigenous culinary knowledges takes numerous forms after 1492. Holt-Giménez 2017 underscores the crucial role of capitalism in transforming relations of production and relation to the land and the ecology. McMichael 2013 employs a food regime analysis to provide a framework for understanding the transformation of agrarian structures.

  • Bauer, Arnold J. Goods, Power, History: Latin America’s Material Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Provides a general overview of Latin American material culture from the precolonial period through the neoliberal period. Bauer focuses on food, clothing, and shelter to show how material culture transformed, focusing on supply and demand, the relationship between consumption and identity, and the role of ritual and power in consumption.

  • Carney, Judith, and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520944855

    An engaging overview of Africa’s botanical legacy in the Americas. Chapters explore African food crops in the slave trade, maroon subsistence strategies, the Africanization of plantation food systems and African animals in the Americas.

  • Holt-Giménez, Eric. A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1pwt8gg

    A critical examination of the political economic history of the contemporary food system. Holt-Giménez explains how capitalist development transformed food into a commodity, radically altering social relations. Alternatives to the current system emanating from social movements are underscored and important examples are drawn from Latin America.

  • Janer, Zilkia. “(In)edible Nature: New World Food Coloniality.” Cultural Studies 21.2–3 (March–May 2007): 385–405.

    DOI: 10.1080/09502380601162597

    Using a coloniality of power approach, this article demonstrates how European colonialism and neocolonialism have repressed and degraded indigenous culinary knowledges. The author then shows how the dominance of French cuisine further subordinated indigenous culinary knowledge and concludes with a critical discussion of fusion cuisines in the Caribbean.

  • Kiple, Kenneth F. A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511512148

    Based on the Cambridge World History of Food, this is an interpretative volume of the longue durée of food and cultural exchange. The volume gives significant weight to the Columbian exchange and its impact on world history. Kiple sees globalization as an ongoing and largely beneficial process.

  • Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph, Jr. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492–2000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    An examination of the process of the commodification of seeds from the Columbian exchange to modern times. The author examines seed and germplasm transfer from a political economy perspective, providing an important analysis of the social history of plant technology.

  • McMichael, Philip. Food Regimes and Agrarian Questions. Halifax, NS: Fernwood, 2013.

    DOI: 10.3362/9781780448794

    Lays out the basic tenets of food regime analysis. Developed by Harriet Friedmann and McMichael, food regimes are used to periodize different phases in food and agrarian structures in accordance with the development of capitalism and the expansion of the world market. Fleshes out many theoretical questions and draws from various cases including from Latin America.

  • Pilcher, Jeffrey M. “Latin American Food between Export Liberalism and the Vía Campesina.” In Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History. Edited by Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin, and Ken Albala, 156–180. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014.

    This sweeping overview provides an excellent introduction to some of the main themes of in Latin American food history, from the late 19th century to the present.

  • Pite, Rebekah E., and Ana Ramirez Luhrs. “Digital Resources: Latin American Food and Food History.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Edited by W. Beezley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    An invaluable overview of digital sources, including cookbooks, magazines, videos, photos and a variety of other sources. The article discusses resources in Latin America and the United States. An essential starting point for research on Latin American food history.

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