Source [24 August 2004]: <http://linux1.tlc.north.denver.k12.co.us/ ~gmoreno/gmoreno/Aztec_Food.html> [I have silently emended many spelling and typographical errors in the original text.Martha Carlin, 10 February 2012.]
Dr. Jane S. Day, Chief Curator
Denver Museum of Natural History
The richest gift from the New World to the Old was not golden treasure but a wonderful variety of new crops. Corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, limes, avocados, chiles, peanuts, cashews, turkeys, pineapples, chewing gum, yams, potatoes, vanilla and chocolate all have their origin in the Americas. Before 1492, these foods were completely unknown in Europe and their introduction there by the early conquistadors made major changes in tastes and cuisine. Today it is hard to imagine spaghetti without tomato based sauces, movies without popcorn, hamburgers without french fries, the fourth of July without watermelon and corn on the cob and, of course, Christmas dinner without turkey. All of these were products of the New World, developed over a long period of time by the farmers of the Americas.
When Moctezuma II sat down to dinner he was served delicacies from all over the empire the best the Aztec world had to offer Elegant dishes were prepared for him, covered with rich sauces of tomatoes, chiles, herbs, chocolate and toasted seeds. Before dining Moctezuma carefully washed his hands in a basin, then seated himself on a stool before a low table covered with a fine white cloth. Secluded from the view of his court by a decorated wooden screen, he was served by four beautiful young women who presented his meals on fine brightly colored ceramic dinner ware imported from Cholula. He made his selection of dishes from over 300 prepared daily by his chefs. The residue went to feed his large palace staff and retainers. Bernal Díaz, a soldier of Cortés, gives us a lavish description of one of these royal meals.
For each meal his servants prepared for him… dishes cooked in their native style, which they put over earthenware braziers to prevent them from getting cold. They cooked more than 300 plates of food the great Moctezuma was going to eat…fowls, turkeys, pheasants, local partridges, quail, tame and wild ducks, venison, wild boar, marsh birds, pigeons, hares and rabbits…His servants brought him some of every kind of fruit that grew in the country… (and) two handsome women served Moctezuma… with maize cakes kneaded with eggs…These maize cakes were very white and were brought in on plates covered with clean napkins.
Bernal Díaz, 1963, pp. 225-227
While eating Moctezuma was entertained by singing and dancing or by the antics of acrobats, dwarfs and clowns with whom he shared special tidbits from his plate. At the end of the meal the women brought him a drink of frothing chocolate in a cup made of pure gold and tubes of tobacco to smoke. Then, we are told, he retired to rest.
The nobility of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan and the wealthy Pochtecah merchants also ate well. In the evening, often beginning as late as midnight, they entertained guests at great banquets lit by burning torches. Crews of women cooks or caterers were brought in for the occasion and spent days preparing dishes for these magnificent feasts. The menu was probably similar to the one described by Bernal Díaz for Moctezuma’s meal. At these elaborate gatherings guests were draped with welcoming garlands of flowers and presented with gifts. After dinner they were offered frothing cups of chocolate and pipes of tobacco to smoke. The evening often ended with the consumption of hallucinogenic substances which induced vividly colored dreams.
The poor of the empire did not fare as well as the upper classes. Their simple meals were based primarily on maize, or corn, grown in their own fields or bartered for in the market place. The Aztecs believed that corn had been a gift to human kind from the the great god Quetzalcoatl. Legend says that Quetzalcoatl watched a red ant gathering shelled corn from within a mountain. In order to follow her and gain access to the grain:
…Quetzalcoatl changed himself into a black ant.
It is said that the red ant
to the foot of the Mountain
where they placed the corn.
Then Quetzalcoatl carried it
on his back to Tamoanchan.
Whereupon from it, the gods ate and ate
and later they put it into our mouths.
In León-Portilla, 1980, p.143
This precious sustenance maize, the basis of all life, was planted with sacred ritual and addressed with prayers. Special Aztec godsand goddesses were associated with the corn plant in all stages of its development, from the seed corn, to the tender first green sprouts, to the full ripe ear and finally to the harvested ears that were dried for storage. Sahagún tells us of the prized white maize ear grown on the irrigated lands and the lake edge chinampa fields of the Valley of Mexico:
that of the irrigated lands,
that of the fields,
that of the chinampas…it is clear;
it is like a seashell,
it is like a crystal.
It is an ear of metal,
a green stone,
a bracelet precious,
our flesh, our bones.
Sahagún, book 11, p. 279
Corn was grown in many varieties and colors. Of the beautiful blue corn it was said:
Its husk is dark blue.
It is wonderful,
desirable…I honor it.
I desire it,
I consider it with respect.
I prize it.
Sahagún, Book ii, p. 280
Women regarded corn with special tenderness and gently breathed upon it with warm moist breath as it was dropped into the cooking pot. If spilt the kernels of maize were carefully gathered up to prevent the threat of famine. The ears of corn were used at all stages of growth and prepared in many different ways from the quickly simmered small first sweet ears to popcorn. The daily processing of the kernels from the stored dried ears consumed thousands of hours of every womans life. It required long periodsof soaking, washing and then grinding on a metate to finally produce the smooth meal or masa which formed the basis for so many Aztec dishes. Flavored in various ways, corn was consumed as tortillas, atole (a thick drink made of flavered ground corn and water), gruel and, at special events, tamales, the favorite dish of Aztec Mexico. Sahagún describes various kinds of these delicacies:
White tamales with beans forming a sea shell on top;
white tamales with maize grains thrown in;
…tamales of meat cooked with maize and yellow chile;
…Tamales made of maize flowers with ground amaranth seeds and cherries added;
…tamales made with honey.
Sahagún, 1979, pp. 37-38
While tamales were probably a frequent dish of the nobility, for the common people they were a treat reserved for special feast days or celebrations.
In addition to corn, vegetables such as amaranth, beans, squash, tomatoes, pads of nopal cactus and chiles were common fare. They were grown along with corn on man-made drained fields called chinampas which filled the edges of the lake. These intensively farmed chinampa fields, stretching in every direction, surrounded the great Aztec island city of Tenochtitlan. Constantly renewed with rich soil from the lake bottom, they could provide up to seven crops a year for the rapidly growing capital of the empire. From these chinampa fields canoes carried crops across the lake and into the canals of the city where they could be directly unloaded at the docks of the bustling marketplace of Tenochtitlan.
Also found in the markets were turkeys and small hairless dogs which along with muscovy ducks were the only animals in Prehispanic Mexico domesticated for food. Considered great delicacies, they were primarily reserved for the tables of the wealthy where they were served in elegant highly seasoned stews.
Wild foods of various kinds supplemented the Aztec diet. Mushrooms, wild greens and tubers of various kinds were gathered from the fields. Ants, grasshoppers, and grubs were collected, rabbits and hares were snared and game was hunted in the forests. All kinds of fish were popular. Indeed it is claimed that Moctezuma was served fresh fish brought daily by runners all the way from the Gulf Coast. Most fish, however, came from the shallow lakes which filled the Valley of Mexico. Fishermen worked from canoes with hand nets, spears and lines to procure the pescado blanco, described by the Spanish as particularly sweet and delicious. Other aquatic foods were also traditional sustenance. People gathered from the rich lake environment salamanders, shrimps, frogs, water snakes, and larvae. In addition great flocks of ducks, geese and other birds wintered in the valley and were hunted with atlatls and darts or with entangling nets. Their meat and eggs supplied a valuable source of protein in the native diet.
Among the Aztecs the only significant Alcoholic beverage was pulque. It was made from “aqua de miel”, a liquid or sap carefully harvested from the maguey cactus plant and fermented. Heavy restrictions and laws against drunkenness suggest that drinking may have been a major problem in Aztec society. Being caught drunk in public was a serious crime, punished with severe penalties. Though the drunken commoner might get off for a first offense with only having his head shaved, the death penalty was enforced for nobles and dignitaries. In the conservative Aztec world drinking was considered the source of many undesirable traits such as excessive gambling, adultery and laziness. Yet the elders of the society, those beyond their productive work years, were allowed to consume as much pulque as they wished. In Aztec Codices they can be seen gathered around a large jar of pulque drinking the liquid from gourd cups.
With the arrival of the Spanish many elements of the Precolumbian diet changed. Grapes and barley to make wine and beer were quickly introduced into colonial Mexico. Chickens and pigs became favorite foods and milk, butter, cheese, sugar, beef and mutton were added to the native cuisine. However, as in the Prehispanic period, the masses of common people were often unable to afford the new products or preferred the old ways. Even today many Mexicans still consume the same foods favored by their ancestors for thousands of years. The busy markets of modern Mexico reflect these traditional food preferences. In towns and cities throughout Mexico garden produce is carried into town from small outlying farms. Seated on the ground, women carefully lay out their mounds of ripe tomatoes, green nopal cactus pads, and piles of beans, corn and squash on woven mats. Shoppers inspect each item and carry their purchases home to be prepared in age old recipes. The tortilla, not wheat bread, is still the most important of all foods, though except in very isolated areas the daily task of grinding corn on a stone metate has almost disappeared. In the city tortillas can now be purchased fresh from the Tortilleria and in the the villages the hard dried grains of maize are now ground daily by the local mill. There, however, the housewife still goes home to pat the damp corn masa into tortillas that will be baked in the traditional way on a comal. The early morning rhythm of the pat pat of hands forming the thin corn cakes is still one of the pleasantest sounds to be heard in the streets and courtyards of rural Mexico.
Today a Precolumbian feast can still be prepared using only the foods and ingredients of Prehispanic Mesoamerica.
Guacamole with baked crisp tortilla chips, popcorn, roasted peanuts, toasted pumpkin seeds, miniature steamed tamales filled with beans and chiles.
Ceviche with fresh fish prepared in a salsa of lime and hot chiles.
Roast turkey with native sage, yams prepared with honey, baked squash, salad of tomatoes and jicama with fresh lime. Freshly baked tortillas.
Fresh fruit cup with pineapple, mangos and papaya.
Tamarindo juice, pulque with lime, Chocolate, hot or cold prepared with vanilla and honey.
GIFTS OF THE AMERICAS
The richest gift from the New World to the Old was not gold but a wonderful variety of new crops. Corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, limes, avocados, jicama, papaya, mangoes, guavas, chiles, peanuts, cashews, turkeys, pineapples, yams, potatoes, vanilla and chocolate all have their origin in the Americas. Before 1492 these foods were completely unknown in Europe, and their introduction there by the early conquistadors led to major changes in worldwide tastes and cuisine. Today it’s hard to imagine spaghetti without tomato-based sauces, movies without popcorn, hamburgers without french fries, the fourth of July without watermelon and corn on the cob and, of course, Thanksgiving dinner without turkey. All of these were products of the New World, developed over a long period of time by the farmers of the Americas. In addition, Prehispanic dishes such as tamales, guacamole, tacos, chile salsas, tostadas, beans, tortillas and cocoa have become popular all over the world.
The New World lacked, however, the domesticated animals so essential in the European diet. Dogs, turkeys and ducks were the only animals raised for food in the Americas, though wild game, reptiles, fish, birds of many kinds and their eggs added protein to the Precolumbian diet. The alcoholic drinks of the Old World were also absent in the New. Only pulque, distilled from the juice of the maguey plant, was consumed as an intoxicating beverage. Thus the arrival of the Spanish had a significant impact on the native diet. Grapes and barley to make wine and beer were soon introduced. Chickens and pigs became favorite foods and milk, butter, cheese, sugar, beef and mutton were added to the Precolumbian cuisine. However even today many people throughout the Americas prefer the old ways and traditional culinary practices. In Mexico, particularly, ties to the past are strong and evident. People continue to plant and consume the foods favored by their ancestors for thousands of years. The busy markets of modern towns and villages reflect these traditional food preferences. Throughout Mexico garden produce is carried into town from small outlying farms. As in the Prehispanic period, women still seat themselves on the ground and carefully lay out on woven mats mounds of ripe tomatoes, green nopal cactus pads, and piles of beans, corn and squash for sale. Shoppers scrutinize the displays, carrying their purchases home to be prepared according to age-old recipes. The corn tortilla, not wheat bread, remains the most important food staple. In the city tortillas can be purchased fresh from the corner tortilleria, while in the villages the dried maize is now ground daily by the local mill rather than by hand on metates. In many regions today’s housewife, like her Prehispanic predecessor, still pats the damp corn masa into tortillas to be baked on the traditional comal. The pleasant rhythmic pat pat of hands shaping the thin corn cakes still punctuates early morning in the streets and courtyards of rural Mexico.
Other contributions found their way to the Old World from the Americas. These included tobacco for pipes, cigars and cigarettes, chicle for chewing gum, and colorful flowers such as the marigold for European gardens. Also adopted were new medicinal herbs for healing and relieving pain, and steam baths, manipulation and massage for treatment of injuries.
Another New World crop, rubber, changed the European concept of sports and games forever. Until the soldiers of Cortés watched the swift ritual game of tlachtli being played on the stucco ball court of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, no European had ever seen a bouncing rubber ball. At first the Spanish thought the bouncing balls must have magical qualities, a spirit inside of them that made them arch and bounce against the walls of the court and the bodies of the players. It didn’t take them long to recognize the potential of the strange new substance and adopt it as their own. Most modern ball games derive from this ancient American “sport of kings”, played for over 3000 years before Cortés first stepped foot in Mesoamerica.
European adventurers and conquistadors swarmed to the New World searching for the wealth of the Americas. They thought to find it in precious metals, spices and jewels; instead they found it in something quite different. The true treasure and the greatest gift of the New World to the Old was the rich new cornucopia of crops.
August 1, 1992
Jane Stevenson Day
Chief Curator, Denver Museum of Natural History