Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/June 1887/Gofio: Food and Physique

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ON a recent visit to the Canary Islands, one of the first things to attract my notice was the good development and fine personal appearance of the common people. I afterward found that travelers are generally impressed in the same manner on their first visit to the Canaries. If they have previously visited the Spanish Peninsula, they are apt to contrast the native Spaniards with their Canarian relatives, always in favor of the latter, whose greater height and better bodily forms are very evident. This superiority may be due, in a certain degree, to the admixture of the Spanish blood with that of the Guanche race, which was found in possession, when, in 1440, the Spanish undertook the conquest of the Canarian Archipelago. It required more than fifty years for the purpose, and not until, to the utmost efforts of Spain, then in the height of her power, the treachery of four native kings had been added, did all the seven islands come under Spanish rule. The old chroniclers are fond of describing the mild and sweet dispositions of the Guanches, their tall, manly figures, and noble bearing in time of peace, as well as their great strength and valor when fighting to preserve their ancient liberty.

Even the women took part against the invaders, and proved themselves, in daring and prowess, no mean antagonists. One woman is especially mentioned who rushed upon an advancing column, seized the foremost soldier and fled up the mountain, bearing her victim as if he had been a child, outstripping her pursuers, till, coming to a precipice, she leaped down and both were dashed to pieces.

The conquerors not only mingled their blood with the conquered, as happens with the Latin races, but they adopted many of their customs, some of which are preserved to the present time. Perhaps the most important of these is in relation to their food, the principal article of which is of Guanche origin.

I have alluded to the excellent bodily development and proportions of the modern Canarians, and to the testimony left by the old chroniclers to the still fine characteristics of the ancient Guanches, who are indeed described as marvels of bodily strength, beauty, and agility, because these facts have an important bearing on the question of their food. As there can be no such bodily growth, strength, and activity, as is described as belonging to these people, without superior nourishment, it follows that the food used by the Guanches, and adopted and still almost exclusively used by the present inhabitants, must be highly nutritious.

This article, so evidently important, is the gofio, named at the head of this paper. There is nothing mysterious about it, for gofio is simply flour made from any of the cereals by parching or roasting before grinding. The Guanches may have roasted their wheat, barley, etc., by the ready method of first heating stones, on which or among which the grain was afterward placed. As to that there are no precise accounts, but well-shaped grinding-stones are plentifully preserved. At present gofio is prepared by roasting the grain in a broad, shallow earthen dish, over a charcoal-fire. It is kept constantly stirred, to prevent burning. One can hardly pass through a village or hamlet without witnessing some stage of the preparation of gofio. The grain is first carefully picked over and all impurities removed. The processes frequently take place in front of or just within the always-open door, giving the traveler ample opportunity to see all steps of the preparation. The grinding is done at the wind-mills, which abound everywhere. The roasted grain is ground to a very fine flour, when it becomes gofio. After grinding it is ready for immediate use. When it is to be eaten, milk, soup, or any suitable fluid, may be mixed with it—anything, in fact, to give it sufficient consistency to be conveyed into the mouth. Being already cooked, it requires no further preparation before eating.

Ultimately maize was introduced into the islands, and soon became an article of general cultivation, particularly on the Island of Grand Canary, where gofio from it is the staple article of food for the laboring population, as that from wheat or wheat mixed with maize is in Teneriffe, wheat being more largely grown in the latter island. Gofio is also made from barley, and especially in Fuerteventura. It is also made from Spanish beans; but this kind is not used alone, but to mix in the proportion of about one fourth to three fourths of wheat, barley, or maize gofio, as some prefer. Wheat and corn gofio, mixed in equal proportions, is very much used, and is preferred by many to either article alone. Nothing can exceed the extreme handiness of this ready-cooked article of food. The Canarian laborer, if alone, takes some gofio in a bag made of the stomach of a kid; if there are several persons, the skin of a kid is used. When the hour for the simple meal has arrived, the bag is extracted from some pocket, or, likely enough, from the girdle, and putting a little water into it, after being well shaken, the meal is ready. Only enough water is added to make it sufficiently consistent to be readily taken in the hand, from which it is invariably eaten. The preparation occupies no appreciable time. The winter before last I saw one or two hundred Italian workmen repairing the retaining wall to a river, and had reason to admire both their industry and their simple, frugal habits. As the mid-day hour approached, one of a gang of ten or twelve men would step aside and prepare the dinner. It nearly always consisted of polenta, or Indian-corn meal boiled in water. It took the best part of an hour to prepare it, and there was also the trouble of kettles, fires, providing wood, besides many antecedent preparations, even when cooking was thus reduced to its simplest proportions. The Canarian laborer has no such trouble. The roasting of the grain is more quickly done than cooking polenta, and can be prepared in larger quantity by the wife at home.

The grinding is the same in both cases, but gofio has the great advantage of being easily carried about the person in a bag, and is always ready to be eaten. It is also much more palatable. The Canarian Archipelago consists of seven inhabited islands with a population of two hundred and forty thousand persons. From the best information I could get, I should think that fully two hundred thousand of them live almost exclusively on gofio, as their fathers have done before them, including their Guanche predecessors, from time immemorial. I have been thus particular in giving, in some detail, the origin, preparation, and importance of gofio in sustaining a large population, because I believe this article to be worthy of attention on the part of of farinaceous foods. If introduced into the United States, it would add a delicious, wholesome, and highly nutritious article of food, very convenient to use, to our already large variety. But gofio has other claims to our attention and favor than its economy, convenience, and evident highly nutritive qualities.

Finding it used, not only by the common people, for whom it constitutes the chief article of sustenance as already stated, but also in the homes of the wealthier citizens, children being especially fond of and thriving well on it, I tried specimens of both wheat and maize gofio and found them very palatable—the maize especially so, having a delicious, aromatic flavor which soon made me prefer it to bread, especially in the morning. Very soon gofio, with a soft-boiled egg, goat's milk, and coffee, constituted a satisfactory breakfast. In fact, I liked it so well, and found it so digestible and nutritious, that I kept to it and throve on it till, at the end of two months, it occurred to me that during that time there had been no instance of "acid stomach" to which, in the best of times, I had always been subject. I left Teneriffe soon after, and during the voyage, and for some time after landing in the West Indies, the gofio-breakfast was suspended. After some weeks without it, the acidity returned very severely, owing to exposure and fatigue. And, as usual, acidity once established, persistently continued. After suffering several days I thought of the gofio, a small quantity of which we had brought from Teneriffe. On eating it for breakfast, as I had done before, the acidity immediately disappeared and has not returned.

In this connection I would say that I had previously observed the same phenomenon of complete exemption from acid stomach while using Carlsbad Zwieback, as the sole farinaceous food at breakfast. Zwieback, as most persons already know, is bread cut in thick slices and baked a second time. In Carlsbad the second baking is carried so far that the slice is browned through its entire thickness. If there remains a white central portion it is not good, and will undergo acid decomposition in the dyspeptic stomach when the properly made Zwieback will remain for a long time unchanged except by gastric fluids. But, while useful as a temporary expedient, Zwieback has not much nutrition after undergoing the three processes of raising, baking, and rebaking to incipient carbonizing. It is incapable of being used alone as a sufficient aliment. To gofio there is no such objection. The roasting is the first and only cooking of the food. Gofio is a food dry cooked, no fluid coming to it till the very moment of eating it; and we know that dry heat produces changes in the structure and composition of cereals different from those produced by moist heat. The roasting process is essentially different from the steaming, baking, or boiling process, and, for one thing, converts starchy particles into more soluble and more friable forms. Moderately browned bread-crust illustrates the change produced.

Perhaps the roasting process has a protecting efficacy against the action of the ferments which are always present in the alimentary tract, ready to effect some form of decomposition should digestion be long enough delayed to allow them to act. In fact, there is no doubt that, in many cases, the stomach actually becomes a receptacle for the cultivation of microbes. As one meal after the other is taken into the stomach, each succeeding mass of fermentable material is affected by the ferment-germs developed and energized by those which have preceded it, till a high degree of potency is reached as in the usual method of bacteria cultivation. In such a case normal digestion is anticipated by fermentation, the wholesomeness of the food is impaired by antecedent decomposition, the gastric power is lessened by contact with noxious acids and gases, and we have the confirmed dyspeptic. The worst of it is, that such a condition is self-propagating, all ordinary means failing to energize digestion or to de-energize the ferment that the former may precede the latter in the usual way. Even the useful and often indispensable stomach-pump sometimes fails to prevent prompt fermentation of the first food taken after its careful use for cleansing purposes. In all my previous personal and professional experience, I found, when once the rapid acidulation of the food demonstrated the potentialization of the microbic ferment, there was no so sure way to overcome it as, in turn, to energize the digestive action by prolonged abstinence from food. In that case the ferment becomes itself digested and de-energized and acts more slowly than the digestive process.

After this the ever-present but now non-energized ferment-germs act tardily, till some accident of overdoing, or bad eating, or other cause, again delays digestion till fermentation is set up in the gastric cavity, and the cultivation process above described is renewed, when there is another attack of acidity of the stomach, difficult to bear and difficult to get rid of, as every unfortunate dyspeptic and every unfortunate physician to such a patient full well know to their sorrow. But the starving-out process is not easy, and is not applicable in many cases; besides, not every one has the resolution for it, when it might be proper and effective. If, in gofio, already demonstrated to have the essentials of high nutrition and palatableness, we have an article of food capable of resisting the acid decomposition for a much longer time than the ordinary preparations of farinacea, it will be an inestimable boon to all civilized communities to make the fact known to them.

I have set on foot trials of the value of gofio, in such cases as are appropriate, to carefully determine its influence in preventing gastric acidity. Whether the impressions, formed, as above described, after several months' personal experience, are to be sustained or to be found groundless, will be known in due time by ample clinical demonstrations. But, considering the importance of the subject to so many persons, and to the end that experiments in the use of gofio in appropriate cases may be multiplied, I do not hesitate to place my (as yet) unsupported personal experience before the profession and public for their careful consideration.