A guest post from Enrique Ortiz, an artist, painter, and web designer, a man who knows way too much about anything Mexica-Aztec related, a man who would not miss a single archaeological conference in the Temple Mayor museum.
Enrique is a talented painter and I promise to link to his works later on, when his beautifully detailed and historically accurate paintings will be properly water-marked and protected (soon, as he promised). He is also one of the founders of In Tlilli In Tlapalli – pre-hispanic blog where you can read many more fascinating articles by him, and other knowledgeable, well-versed in history people.
Prehispanic Mexican Food
This article is published because of the great interest that aroused around this data on pre-hispanic food on Twitter some time ago. Many were surprised to discover what our ancestors were feeding on in the Mexican Valley. One or two even mentioned the magic words “It seemed to me ..”. Well, after this brief but fanciful explanation, we can begin with the article.
The four main crops in the valley of Mexico were always of an equal importance: maize (centli), amaranth (huauhtli), beans (etl) and finally the chia. It is noteworthy to mention that the Spanish, due to the religious importance amaranth held – Amaranth statues were being made for the main deities, some mixed with blood, others with honey – tried to prevent its cultivation and use, lest this food would stimulate the original Mexican religions. The amaranth that was particularly appreciated by our grandparents was called wild amaranth (quilitl). Even the mother of the forth Mexica tlatoani Itzcoatl (who was not a woman of noble birth) was selling amaranth-quilitl on Azcapotzalco market.
An important aspect related to the Mexican food were the times when one had one’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. Having no clocks, people were helped to determined the meal-time with the assistance of conch-shells or drums, which were played from the top of the different teocalli (temples), as also by the position of the sun.
The time of any Mexican breakfast was around 10 in the morning. For ordinary people, this was a frugal meal, consisted of a couple of tortillas with beans and salsa, although on one’s way to work or back home one could buy himself a tamalli. In some families after the end of the day, around the 6-8, a light supper was served, usually a gruel accompanied by lake fish or poultry and tortillas.
But the well-invested, royal dinners in the Palace could have started at midnight and lasted until dawn, taking many courses of food and dessert. Such evening would usually end with an invigorating chocolate drink xocolatl (for the journey back home) and a clay pipe filled with vanilla flavored snuff or scented woods. In some banquet, the dessert consisted of the digestives, including peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms as teonanacatl (mushroom gods) or covered nanacatl miel.
A banquet like that would demand a huge amount of supplies, plenty of beans, corn, 80 to 100 turkeys, a dozen dogs and about 20 loads of cocoa. Only a few rich nobles or unusually rich merchants of pochteca-traders guild could afford such expense.
The only two domesticated animals found in these lands were dark hairless dogs called acutalmente xoloitscuintli and turkeys (uexolotl). The fowl’s meat was usually more appreciated that that of a dog, due to its taste and smoothness. So much so that, when a host had to put up the dish, the parts of turkey were laid prettily above the main bulk of a dog meat. Or so claimed Sahagun.
Some anthropologists have sought the origin of the alleged Aztec cannibalism in the lack of protein in their diet. Nothing of the sort! Prehispanic Mexican food was the most diverse in the world, and filled with all variety of proteins. Our ancestors ate frogs, reptiles such as iguanas, ants and their eggs (escamoles), maguey worms that even today are considered a delicacy. A water shrimp, salamanders, flies and aquatic larvae (aneneztli) added to that diet.
Poor people and peasants were gathering a substance floating in the lake, known tecuitlatl, which were told by the chronicles to be cheesy. This was pressed between the mass of the tortillas to give a bitter and stronger taste. Many interesting foods roamed the swamps of Lake Texcoco at pre-hispanic times.
Among the most appreciated delicacies, the nobility most appreciated tamales stuffed with meat, snails and fruit (the latter served with poultry broth); frogs with chili sauce, white fish from the west of the country with chilli and tomato. Also the axolotl seasoned with ground pepper and yellow nugget was a treat for those times. The old recipe of maguey worms was savored by everyone, from leaders to high priests and common people of the whole Mexican Valley.
Back in pre-hispanic days the lands of central Mexico were very rich in hunting. Deer, rabbits, hares, wild pigs or peccaries, birds like pheasants, doves and various waterfowl species abounded everywhere. But people inclined to favor vegetarian food did not suffer, either. Tlacoyo, green mass, and the traditional red for these foods, accompanied with beans, insects, and the typical cactus salsa provided rich diversion to meat. Just as tamales, atole and pozole those were enjoyed by Chichimeca, Mexica, Acolhuas, Tepaneca matlazincas, Otomi, Nahua and many other nations of ancient Mexico.
In pre-Hispanic times, like in our days, the months of June and July were the period of anxiety and scarcity: “So there was a hunger, when grain of maize was very expensive and had great need of sources, they tell us.” The Mexican government tried to remedy this situation by distributing seeds and foods from the royal granaries, which Tlatoani administered directly with the dignitaries. “The emperor showed his goodwill towards the poor, making tamales and they were given gruel.”
I hope you have enjoyed this brief overview of Hispanic food. In many remote villages in the mountains you can taste these dishes, or even in the heart of the city on Saturdays. This is just one of the great legacies of civilizations that inhabited the territory we now call Mexico. Let’s not forget them or their heirs who still live in our times.
Comments, suggestions or questions by twitter account Cuauhtemoc_1521
Enrique Ortiz Garcia