Last year I celebrated Columbus Day with my doctor on Staten Island. Nick was Italian and cooked great meatballs. The doctor and I had met during our freshman class of European History 101. We had received Bs from the professor.
His kids had the day off and we enjoying the meal.
"Hey, Nico, I have a question for you."
"Yeah, what?" He was studying film at a state university.
“What year did Columbus sail to America?”
“Why you asking?"
"Because it's Columbus Day."
"I was wondering if you knew the date. Do any of you?"
"What is it? Any one you."
"It's not a school day." Nico's best friend replied through a mouthful of meatballs.
"So you don't know."
"Nope." They answered in a collective chorus of ignorance.
"Did we know that little when we were that age?" I asked Nick.
"We went to nun school. The sisters forced us to remember Columbus' three ships by name; the Santa Maria, the Nina, and the Pinta."
“C’mon, you gotta know.” I looked to the young people around the table.
“1882?” His youngest son was the only one brave enough to offer an answer.
“You got two numbers right.” The doctor shook his head in disbelief. “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You never head that?”
“Never.” The kids ranged from 8 to 21. Columbus was a blank to them and I explained that Columbus had been seeking the back door to Asia.
“For Chinese take-out?” His older son’s friend Squeak asked with interest. He liked pu-pu platters.
“No, for spices.”
"That's why no one knows about him. No one knows about spices." His oldest son's only connection to spice was the Spice Girls and they hadn't scored a hit since the turn of the century.
"Spices were the most important commodity in the world 500 years ago." I had been a history substitute teacher at South Boston High during the bussing riots of 1975. "Spices are pepper, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, chili, nutmeg and many more."
"Chili came from Mexico," Nick's youngest son announced from the table.
"The gardener told me that. He's from Mexico."
"Yes, but many other spices came from Asia." I had spent the 90s and 00s in the Far East. Nick had graduated from a medical school in Manila. We liked the cuisine of the Orient.
"Why they need spices on their good, when they had ketchup?" Squeak was spinning linguine on his fork.
"Ketchup is not a spice and it is not a vegetable." Even if the majority of American teenagers choose Heinz ketchup as their favorite veggie. "I'll tell you a story. Back in 1991 I arrived by boat to Ternate in northern Indonesia. The volcanic island was a backwater then, but in the 15th Century European nations fought to control its treasures of cloves and spices. Hoping to discover a short-cut to the fabled island, Christopher Columbus set sail west across the Atlantic Ocean. His fleet of three ships made landfall on an unknown continent. It was not China, Japan, or Ternate. Undeterred by this disappointment, the Genoan adventurer claimed the new world for the King Of Span and his patroness the Queen Isabella. He was as good a salesman as he was a sailor and called it the West Indies to promote future expeditions."
My friend's teenagers were gazing off with disinterest, although Nick's youngest son and daughter were listening to what I had to say. Their attention span respected an adult, so I continued my tale, "Columbus' first voyage was remarkable, for the fact that he was traveling through unknown waters and only lost one ship, the SANTA MARIA on his first voyage. It sank on Christmas Day, but not one sailor drowned in the shipwreck. There was not enough room for everyone to return to Spain and 39 men elected to stay on 'Hispaniola' to further explore the virgin territory for gold and spices."
"What happened to those guys he left behind?" Nick's younger son was showing promise as a scholar. Julien was a straight B student.
"They were massacred by Carib warriors who detested the newcomers' enslavement of their women, children, and friends, thus initiating the long conflict between Europe and the New World. "
"Massacred as in eaten." Squeak was an ace at shoot-em-up VDO games.
"Did they use any spices when they ate them or just ketchup?" Squeak's comment earned all-around laughter.
"I quit." I got up from the table and went out on the terrace with a glass of wine in my hand.
Outer New York Harbor spread beneath the highest point in Staten Island. Henry Hudson had sailed this bay. His namesake river ran straight north into the Adirondacks. He had been stranded in the Arctic by his men.
Exploration was tough on failures.
In truth Christopher Columbus carried little gold back to his Spanish sovereigns, but he introduced corn, manioc or cassava, potato, the peanut, tomato, papaya, pineapple, avocado, chili pepper, cotton and cocoa to the Old World. It took about 30 years for the chili to reach Thailand, which adopted the fiery spice as its own.
My wife Mam loved chili on her sum-tam salad. All Thai women loved the fiery mango dish and they have Columbus to thank for their pleasure.
Columbus might be forgotten by the young and no longer considered to be a hero by those who blame the destruction of the Indians on his discovery, but I celebrated his discovery of the Bahamas with rum and coke. Nick joined me and raised his glass.
He was Admiral of the Oceans.