‘Columbusing’: A Word Meant To Insult

From the not-always-thoroughly-researched source that is NPR’s “Code-Switch” blog, I learned a new word today: Columbusing.

The headline defines it as: “The Art Of Discovering Something That Is Not New”. If they’d left it there, I would have shrugged and went on; it seems accurate enough. Christopher Columbus is most famous for “discovering” a continent where people already lived, and for which some claim (and others) that he already had a map, since it’s known that seafaring Europeans had already made the voyage and it’s thought that the Chinese may have as well.

But the Code Switch writer didn’t stop at the headline.

With just their headline definition, I’m Columbusing any time I learn of something for the first time, if someone else already knew of it. I discover the music of Adele — others already knew about it. I discover the genius of Stanley Kubrick — I wasn’t the first.

Instead, the writer got more specific: “Columbusing is when you ‘discover’ something that’s existed forever. Just that it’s existed outside your own culture, nationality, race or even, say, your neighborhood.” So it’s now about race/ethnicity. Got it. Not anything I discover, but only if I discover something outside my “race”.

If you didn’t already know, the entire Code Switch blog is about “the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture, how they play out in our lives and communities, and how all of this is shifting”. And Columbus’ real infamy is that he opened the doors for (white) European exploitation of America and its (non-white) natives.

How does all this translate into color runs and empanadas? I have no idea. But writer Brenda Salinas makes the illogical leap that simply discovering or participating in something that once belonged to another culture is similar to what Columbus did. Because eating an empanada without being Hispanic is like Columbus taking captive the friendly natives and demanding they lead him to their source of gold.

Salinas noted that “hand pies” are becoming suddenly popular, and claims they’re “exactly like an empanada”.

“But ‘discovering’ empanadas on Pinterest and calling them ‘hand pies’ strips empanadas of their cultural context. To all the people who grew up eating empanadas, it can feel like theft.”

She goes on to attach the “theft” of food to the current national debate about immigration: “It seems like a paradox to relish your fajitas while believing the line cook should get deported.”

Salinas wraps up by giving some helpful tips on how to enjoy the beauty of other cultures with Columbusing them.

“It is best to enter a new, ethnic experience with consideration, curiosity and respect. That doesn’t mean you have to act or look the part of a dour-faced anthropologist or an ultra-earnest tourist. You can go outside your comfort zone and learn about the completely different worlds that coexist within your city. If you’re adventurous, you can explore the entire world without leaving the country and without needing a passport. Just remember, it’s great to love a different culture and its artifacts, as long as you love the people too.”

I’ll be honest; I didn’t know what an “empanada” was before reading this article; I’m pretty sure I’ve never had one. Since “color run” was mentioned only once in the article and empanada took up most of the space, I looked it up: “a turnover with a sweet or savory filling”. I also didn’t really know what a “turnover” was, so I looked that up too: “a filled pastry made by folding half of the crust over the other half”.

Okay. I’ve had those. In fact, I’ve had them my whole life. They were called “pasties” when I was a kid, and that’s defined as: “A folded pastry case with a savoury filling, typically of seasoned meat and vegetables.”

(Code Switch also linked to this Buzzfeed article, as an example. The images there confirmed what I’d learned by reading definitions.)

Oddly, when looking up the origins of turnovers or pasties, I found mostly references to England, especially Cornwall. Some of the earliest mentions of “pasty” or “pastie” in literature are found in cookbooks from the 1300s. An “Olde English Festival” page lists pasty recipes from as early as 1393. Even in the 1200s, there is a mention of the food in English law, when Henry III demanded 24 pasties a year, made with herrings, from the town of Great Yarmouth.

The paste found in Mexico apparently originated from England as well, since Cornish miners moved there in the early 1800s.

Empanadas, meanwhile, are defined very similarly though I did find one Wikipedia page that says empanada fillings are cooked before insertion, whereas a pasty’s filling is cooked with the dough. They reportedly can be traced back to the Moorish Invasions of Spain. Italy has its version, the calzone (“an Italian filled oven bread… shaped as a folded pizza”).

At least one book on the history of European food says both empanadas and calzones can be traced back to the samosa (“a fried or baked pastry with savory filling”), which originated in the Middle East.

So. As far back as we can determine, European cultures have been cooking filled pies of various shapes and with varied fillings, and at least some think the idea originated in the Middle East. (It also sounds a lot like a wonton, a dough cooked around a meat/vegetable filling, which also dates back at least a thousand years, as well as other dumplings.)

If it was ever new, or invented, or confined to a single culture to wrap a dough around a filling and then cook it and eat it, those origins have long been obscured by the passage of Time.

Salinas is accusing non-Hispanic U.S. citizens of “appropriating” something that all of us have enjoyed in various forms for many centuries. And then making it worse by adding “Columbus” to it, as if we’re depriving another culture of enjoying its own food. And if the writer was unaware how similar all these pastries are and how many there have been throughout history, it seems like something you would search on Google before writing such an accusatory article.

  1. Char Char Binks says:

    In fact, I married a Mexican, and her relatives called empanadas “pastes” (sp?), after the pasties brought to Mexico by English and Cornish miners centuries ago. I guess we could say they “Columbused” the word, and the pie. After all, since Zimmerman, Hispanics are now evil white people, too.

  2. Shari says:

    You really got me with this combination of wit, history, and food. I could read articles like this for a long time.

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