The Secret History of Gazpacho

As previously published by Charleston City Paper, 8/28/2019:

Undiscovered Charleston’s Santa Elena Gazpacho 1566

The secret history of gazpacho and its ties to the Lowcountry

A Palmetto Duende

By Forrest Parker

Gazpacho comes from South Carolina.

You heard me right. At least, that’s what I’ve been thinking this might point toward. In 2015, my pitch to the Charleston Wine + Food Festival began:

An Imaginary Spain

In Andalucia, in the South of Spain, locals speak of the Duende, the manifestation of a spirit who comes alive in an evocation of music, dance, and food. Over 100 years before the founding of the Charlestowne Colony, the Spanish arrived and settled Santa Elena on what is today Parris Island, S.C. Originally intended as the capital for all of Spanish La Florida, they brought with them figs, pomegranates, olives, and sour Seville oranges they grew along the S.C. coast, along with the famed pata negra Iberico piggies from the Spanish Dehesa. What if they’d never left? Would we be speaking Spanish today? Would Carolina Gold Rice Culture still have come to fruition? “An Imaginary Spain” is a look at what that food culture in S.C. may have looked like had the Spanish stuck around.

The resulting Wine + Food event was A Palmetto Duende — flickering torchlight, the rhythmic guitar and dance of flamenco, flowing cava and seasonal, locally sourced small bites based on Andalucian tradition. We greeted guests for two back-to-back (sold out) seatings. My guest chef Katie Button, of Asheville’s Curate, then alternated courses envisioning a Lowcountry filled with Spanish wines and a largesse of gusto. We featured a delicious Ossabaw X Mulefoot pig from Tank Jackson. The event was the happy collision of what so many Charleston chefs experience during the annual fest — exhaustion, stress, and anxiety abated by excitement. My team and I were, after all, hosting Button. Everything clicked, Chef Katie was lovely and when it was all over, I think I went home and just slept like the dead…

My latest venture these days is Undiscovered Charleston. It’s a walking food history tour of the historic district with a cooking demonstration, three course lunch, and wine pairings courtesy of my host, Chef Dominique Chantepie, at Bistro a Vin.

I’ve been thinking of that supper with Katie lately, and of gazpacho in particular since it got so hot so quickly this year. I was wondering if gazpacho would have been served at the original Santa Elena, and if it was, what it would have looked and tasted like.

In food history terms, turns out gazpacho is old. Very old. It predates the Reconquista of Ferdinand and Isabella (hello, Columbus) and goes back as far as the Roman Empire, possibly further. There are multiple variations: there’s salmorello, from Cordoba, a thick soup of pulverized bread moistened with vinegar and flavored with garlic and an abundance of tomato.

There’s the Moorish inflected ajo blanco, literally “white garlic,” that includes grapes and is thickened with crushed almonds. I talk about this in front of the old Farmer’s & Exchange Bank on the tour, recalling the storied cuisine from Saracen (and Charlie’s Little Bar, famous in its own right).

But the version most of us are familiar with is gazpacho al andalus, or Andalucian-style gazpacho. A profusion of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, garlic, sherry vinegar. Traditionally made with bread in the soup base but these days frequently without. There’s an Andalucian saying, “No one gets fat eating gazpacho.”

I love gazpacho. As a broke CofC student, I lived off the gazpacho, hummus, and pitas at the old Doe’s Pita Plus. As a tour guide from Charleston Carriage Company, we literally drank the stuff in the summer heat from the still-lamented Pinckney Café, or from G&M. Josh Ivey’s old man Lee once schooled me at the counter of his Med Deli about why real gazpacho has to have bread as a base and needs to sit overnight.

But this is what’s been keeping me up — that bit about gazpacho dating to the Romans. So if Columbus is credited with introducing tomatoes, peppers, corn, and potatoes to the Old World as a result of his 1492 “discovery,” what did gazpacho look like prior to that?

The earliest versions of the dish actually pre-date the Romans, pointing to the Greeks, and are mentioned even as early as the biblical Ruth. But by the time of the Roman empire, the dish first finds form in a sort of subsistence porridge made by legionnaires with stale bread ground in a mortar and pestle with garlic, vinegar, olive oil, and salt (Roman soldiers were paid in salt, hence the “sal” in salary.)

So how did we get from there to here? OK, here goes…

One way to say it is that that original bread-type porridge comes over with Columbus. Another way to say it is the Andalucian soldiers who man the posts at Santa Elena eat the same soup. Another way to say it is the Andalucian settlers would have had access to ingredients of the Americas like peppers and tomatoes to fold in to the soup. And yet even another way to say it is that gazpacho al andalus, as we know it today, exists in part and parcel because of the fabled Spanish settlement of Santa Elena right here in South Carolina.

Is that a fact? No, no that’s just what I was thinking. But I do think a lot.

So that was my bet. I reached out to Megan Morris, director at the Santa Elena Foundation in Beaufort to glean what I could. Morris in turn put me in touch with Randy Dominic, who heads up the foundation’s living history organization and is particularly passionate about 16th century cuisine.

As it turns out, it’s not Columbus, but Cortes in 1521 who introduces the Peruvian tomato to Spain, a country which at the time is arguably more xenophobic than the current administration.

Though it’s not a far stretch from 1521 to 1566, the first gazpacho recipe proper isn’t published until Juan de la Mata, a Madrilleno, publishes his Arte de Reposteria in 1747. Tomatoes don’t appear in recipes until the 19th century when the dish is popularized elsewhere in Europe by Eugenia de Montijo, the last Empress of the French and wife of Napoleon III who grew up in Granada. And the first documented recipe for gazpacho in the States? From the 1824 Virginia Housewife cookbook, not as a soup but something closer to an Italian panzanella, but made with hardtack biscuits.

Did I really find that gazpacho came from South Carolina? In the Imaginary Spain of my dreams it did. I am, after all, a chef, not a scholar. And as Mark Twain said, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Gazpacho comes from South Carolina.

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