Quick Tip 63 – Currency Crops: Will Work for Food

Quick Tip 63 – Currency Crops: Will Work for Food

Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where we do a dive into some facet of food, food culture, or food history. And today we’re focusing on the last one. Today, we’re discussing what I call “currency crops”. Now, I’ve not found any evidence that this phrase exists, other than in my posts, and I can’t find any examples of a phrase of what, exactly, I’m trying to illustrate with the phrase. So, in the interest of at least looking VAGUELY like actual scholarship, let’s make some definitions


Personally, I’ve Always Wanted a Cleanly Defined Jawline

So, if I’m inventing a phrase, what does it mean? Based on the name, and some of my past comments about this idea, you might assume I mean “crops or foods who were used as currency at one point”, following it up with the common revelation that “salary” comes from the Roman word for “salt”, and referred to a Soldier’s annual pay, which was paid in salt.

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Wooo! Payday! 

And, up until a little while ago, you’d have been pretty close to right. But here’s the thing, and it’s partly why you’re only CLOSE to right: that fact about salaries? It’s not true. Or, rather, it’s half-true. The word “salary” does indeed come from the same root as roman for “salt”…but we don’t know why. There’s no records of Romans being paid with salt. People HAVE used Salt as a currency. China supposedly did so during the Yuan dynasty. Ethiopia did it as recently as 2013. But Rome never did. The idea comes from some misquotes of Pliny and Livy, Roman historians. And we know they’re misquotes because, believe me, if it weren’t, there’d be a LOT MORE than 2 sources. The Roman legions employed 150,000 soldiers. It would have come up more than TWICE.

Because of that, I had to restructure my thinking. Which, honestly, worked, because most of the things I wanted to discuss with the term didn’t actually fit that idea. And also, because that idea, to an extent, HAS a name: it’s a “commodity money”. A commodity money is any form of money where the thing being traded represents its own value. This is…kind of complicated, and a little difficult to parse from raw bartering, but…Look, you know how a gold coin works, right? A gold coin is worth its weight in gold, obviously, because it IS its weight in gold. Therefore, a gold coin is divisible by its weight. This is where “pieces of eight” come from: pirates would cut gold coins into eighths to divide up their loot.

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"Alright me hearties, that's a quarter piece for James, Williams, and Tucker, an eighth so we can buy more crackers for the parrot, and the last eighth will go in the grog fund." 

And people have done this with a LOT of stuff. Poland had things called “grzywnas”, basically thin ingots of silver. Prisons do this, with Cigarettes: you don’t have to smoke to know that cigarettes are worth a certain amount of money, so you get cigs, and use them to buy what you want. And a lot of foods have been used this way. Salt, Pepper, Tea, Candy, Barley, Rice, etc. In the Aztec Empire, Cocoa beans were a form of currency. Which is why only rich people drank cocoa, since it was the equivalent of making a smoothie out of dollar bills.  

No, a currency crop, therefore, is something more precise. And it lies in what is, and Is not, currency. For this, we’re going a touch abstract. See, currency, as implied by its resemblance to ‘current’, comes from “running” or “moving”. Technically, it’s not currency, if it’s not in circulation. Currencies NEED economies. And they drive them.  And that’s where I’m going. A “currency crop” is any food or crop of sufficient value that it created and sustained economies. And luckily, I have two great examples, both in the form of tiny white crystals. Sugar, and Salt. Let’s return to our briny buddy and discuss how salt worked as a currency crop back in the day.

People Like to be Called “Salt of the Earth”, but Why Not “Pepper of the Sea”?

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time ragging on the idea of the Romans paying people in salt. But that’s not to say that salt wasn’t important to the Romans. Salt, as you might or might not know, is an essential mineral: all living things need SOME salt to survive. In addition, salt has always been very useful, as it serves as one of the earliest and easiest ways of preserving food from spoiling. This is partly where the idea of people being paid in salt comes from, many old writers have made comments to the effect of “salt being worth more than gold”…it’s just that they mean that salt is more inherently USEFUL than gold.

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It's beautiful, sure, but can I eat it? 

And this is important because of the Via Salaria, or the “salt road”. Salt roads are actually a big deal in older cultures: see, salt is only really readily available in two places: around the sea, and in mines. So if your town didn’t have either of those features nearby, then you quickly figured out the nearest place that DID, and worked out the easiest way to get there.

The Via Salaria in particular is a road that essentially crosses from one side of Italy to the other, ending at Rome. Or, more accurately, at the mouth of the Tiber. Because that’s where Sabines would go to harvest salt. Some believe this was part of the reason Rome was founded in the area in the first place: the local salt flats were simply one of many natural resources to take advantage of. Many places were, in fact. Any towns in England whose names end in “-wich” were salt-making towns. One of the most important cities in Austria is Salzburg, aka “Salt-Fort”. The oldest currently known town in Europe was built around a salt mine.

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Fun fact: I didn't actually think salt mines were a real thing until my early 20's. Like, I thought they were a joke. 

This is why Salt is useful as an example of a currency crop: it’s basically THE currency crop. The economies and methods of harvesting and distributing salt are basically the foundational economies of all civilization. Salt may not have been worth more than gold, but for many, it was part of the reason we were spending gold at all!

But that’s a long, subtle example. Can we find a more short-term, really vivid, and emotionally scarring option? I’m glad I asked, because now we get to talk about SUGAR!


Things Are Going to Get Bittersweet pretty Quick

Brief history of sugar in the West: Sugarcane initially grew in Southeast Asia, somewhere around New Guinea or Indonesia. And if you wanted a sweetener in the West, you used honey, because that’s all there was. Over time, the sugarcane spread to mainland Asia, into Southern India and China. And by “over time” I mean “the earliest signs of sugarcane cultivation are like, 8,000 years ago, and India started talking about their sugarcane in 300-400 BC. Like, one of Alexander the Great’s generals wrote about “a reed that makes honey without bees.”

Sugar is seen as mostly medicinal at the time, and it kind of stalls out there for a while. Like, low-volume sugar trade between India and Greece/Rome just keeps going without change until like, 600 AD. Then, the Arab traders, who by now have had CENTURIES of working with the stuff, and learning to grow it themselves, start using it for elaborate desserts for royalty. The Muslim world (because, yeah, that’s ALSO what kicks off around 600-650 AD, the religion of Islam) becomes the predominant source of white sugar production.

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Truly, the face of a global merchantile empire. 

Sugar production in Europe begins when the Moors CONQUER parts of it, Specifically, Spain and Sicily, as we’ve fortunately discussed before. Then, during the Crusades, ‘mainstream’ Europe learns the secrets of sugar production.

But here’s the thing with sugar: it SUCKS to make on an agricultural scale. Sugarcane needs a lot of water, AND a lot of heat to grow correctly, both of which are easy to come by in Southeast Asia, but less so in the Mediterranean. The Arabs had made it work in the middle east through intensive irrigation projects. So it needs conflicting resources, AND, on top of that, the process is labor intensive. This is important, because it sets the stage: Sugar in 14th century Europe cost as much per pound as spices imported all the way from India, despite being made much closer, because of all this.

Now, here’s where things take a dark turn. You’ve got 13th-15th century Europeans, dealing with a very valuable resource that, to be properly created, requires a LOT of HARD work: HOURS of pressing, boiling, scraping, carrying heavy plants that have to be tended…how do you think they did it?

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I mean, we all knew the answer here. 

Yeah. This is where this starts. Sure, slavery had already existed for many centuries, but it was also going through a “thing”. Around the year 1000, a lot of Europe was starting to get a little tetchy about the idea of slavery, moving to the idea of serfs instead of slaves. Mainly, they were getting tetchy about the idea of other Europeans being slaves, but still, there was a growing sense of “why do we still do this”? Technological advancements, and increasing trade routes were making more things available, and easier, so labor needs were decreasing.

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Ah, yes, the glorious, luxurious days of 1099. 

And then sugar’s ass showed up. And it started growing in southern Europe. And then, Europe learned it could grow in the hot, moist climates of islands they were settling in the Atlantic ocean: the Canaries, Madeira, and so on.

Then, in the 1400’s, the NEW WORLD was found! And wouldn’t you know it, the Caribbean and South America are FULL of places that are very hot, and very wet! Making them PERFECT for Sugarcane plantations!

And what comes out of it are three things: money, misery, and molasses. The Trans-atlantic Slave Trade was also called the “Triangle Trade”: You sailed from Boston to Northern Africa/South Europe, sold off your rum and processed sugar, bought a bunch of slaves, sailed down to Jamaica or Brazil, sold the Slaves for molasses, and brought the molasses (and any slaves you didn’t sell) to sell in America. Where the molasses would be processed into sugar, or rum, and then you’d sail back to the other side of Atlantic to do it all again.


Any day where I can cite my favorite song from 1776 is a pretty good day, 

Caribbean colonies LIVED off of sugar. In the 1700’s, 93% of Barbados’s exports were sugar. Just. Sugar. And it created its own demand: sugar is super great to eat. It’s literally addictive. For a demonstration on how it fed itself:  In 1700, the rate of sugar consumption in Britain was 4 pounds a year per person. That’s 8 cups of sugar a year, or around 1 tsp of sugar a day. By 1800, it was 4 tsps a day. By 1850, it was 8 tsps a day (about one “shot” of sugar). By 1900, it was almost 24 tsp a day, or half a cup.

This is what made slavery so profitable. Sure, other crops used slave labor to offset costs, but the all-consuming wave of sugar consumption was the core of the trade. Which is why, when industrialization kicked off in the late 1700’s to mid 1800’s, and, in the early 1800’s we discover we can harvest sugar from beets, and breed varieties specifically to have higher sugar content, we see a sudden drop in slavery. Most of Europe had banned slavery altogether by 1840.


The Current Flows Ever Onward

It’s not the end of sugar’s effects and reverberations through history, of course. Hell, it’s not even a full discussion of them. I skipped over a lot of what was going on in various parts. But this is the end of sugar, the currency crop. Because there’s another element to the idea: I said before that currency means, in a way “current”. And that’s important. Because no currency crop lasts. It either grows so big that it self-regulates, settles down, and just becomes as facet of life going forward, or something is revealed or discovered that makes it unappealing or irrelevant, and it drops off.

Foods are only the “currency crop” for a time. Sugar was the currency crop of the 1400-1800’s, Salt was the currency crop of 2000 BC, and many others held reign in other times. Black Pepper has been the currency crop of several centuries, coming into vogue with trade between Rome and India, then being monopolized by Islamic traders and Italian merchants. Bread, as I have mentioned before, is perhaps the second core currency “crop”: as a general rule, if your average populace cannot afford to buy bread, then your economy is currently failing, and your civilization is going to experience some very big changes very quickly if you don’t fix it.

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This is what it looked like trying to buy Bread in Egypt in 2008. That did not last long. 

And those are some demonstrations of the idea. It’s not necessarily a super-important term or idea, but I thought it was a useful one. A way to describe foods of particular importance for a time, and a way to remind ourselves of the value of foods. Nations can be built on the back of a single food product, or the FALLOUT from one. Haiti exists as it does now because the sugar-harvesting slaves were sick of their working conditions. Liberia was founded by freed American slaves. France SOLD Canada to Britain in exchange for getting their sugar-producing Caribbean islands back after a bad war. That’s how powerful sugar was as a currency crop: it made nations by accident while it made its money. That’s why I wanted a phrase for this things: foods that were strong enough to shape history, foods who drove economies and shaped nations. And if you can’t find what you want, then sometimes, you’ve got to make it yourself.

If you want to reward Jon for his completely un-requested addition to the world of culinary scholarship, consider supporting the site on Patreon, thus making the meals we cook a minor currency crop of their own! IF you’d rather not climb down that rabbit hole, lest it somehow result in the re-invigoration of chattel slavery, then just spread the word (or phrase) through social media by liking our content, sharing our posts, and inviting your friends to like our Facebook page! Get in on this early, and we can start a whole thing together!