Last time, we looked at the four staples of the Mesoamerican diet: maize, beans, squash, and chile.  This time, we take a look at some of the meat sources, specifically from domesticated animals.

When you think of Mexican cuisine, you probably think of dishes that include beef, chicken, and pork; one can hardly imagine a taco without beef. All three of these meats come from European livestock that was unknown in the Americas…well, except with one possible exception, but more on that later. Mesoamerica had its own domesticated livestock, some of it gracing the tables of every American household come Thanksgiving, while some others probably will make dog-lovers cry. So without further ado, here are the primary domesticated food animals of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

The Turkey

Domesticated Food Animals - Turkeys

Gobble, gobble, gobble

The turkey is one of two large domesticated birds found in the Americas, and it’s domestication dates back to about 200 BCE. As a food animal, it’s importance is unparallelled; it is said that in the market in Tenochtitlan, over 18,000 birds were sold every five days. Turkeys were important in all sorts of rituals for the Maya, from medicine, to planting, to calling for rain. The turkey was an instant hit with Europeans, and soon took the place of peacock as a choice meat at feasts for the nobility back in Europe. The meat was roasted, baked, or boiled in soup, cooked into tamales or baked in casseroles. Turkeys were among the offerings sent to Cortes and his men by natives to test what kind of beings these strange pale-skinned men were; the stories go that slaves were sent as well, to see which ones the Spaniards would eat; if they ate the turkeys, they must be humans, but if they ate the slaves…then they must be fierce, bloodthirsty gods.

The Muscovy Duck

Domesticated Food Animals - Muscovy Duck

The Muscovy Duck – the Mesoamerican Chicken

Known today as the “Barbary Duck” in recipes, the Muscovy is the second large domesticated bird of the Americas. Little is known of how they were kept and raised, and they seemed to have been consumed primarily in Central America. Interestingly, chickens were found in Peru prior to the Europeans’ arrival, and had been there long enough for them to become an important economic item to the Inca. It’s theorized that these New World chickens came from contact with the Polynesian Islands. As of yet there is no evidence of chickens in Central America though.

The Dog

Domesticated Food Animals

In his letters to Charles V, Cortes called these hairless dogs “Quite tasty.”

Dogs weren’t kept as pets in Mesoamerica; instead, they were bred as a food source and raising such animals was a lucrative business. The dogs fattened for the dinner plate were a hairless variety related to the modern Xoloitzcuintle (not the Chihuahua), and after the Conquest, the breed nearly disappeared due to the Spanish pickling them in high quantities as food for their sailors. These dogs were thought to be particularly tasty because they were never fed meat, only a steady diet of maize mush or avacados.

The Honey Bee

Domesticated Food Animals - Stingless Bees

The Trigona, one of several species of stingless bees that produced honey in the Americas.

Beekeeping was a very important trade among the Maya, though archeological evidence shows that even the ancient Toltecs practiced beekeeping, in logs they hung from the roofs of their houses. Indigenous species of stingless bees produced large quantities of honey not only for local use, but for export across Central America. The honey was used primarily as a sweetener of atolli, or was made by the Maya into the alcoholic ritual beverage Balché.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the wild game that rounded out the meat sources of the Mesoamerican diet.

Why Aztecs?Yesterday on Twitter, the hashtag #DiversityInSFF was trending and lots of people were saying a ton of really good things about the issue of diversity in SF/F, whether it be in books or publishing as an establishment. I did a lot of retweeting but not a whole lot of talking; other people were saying the things I might say much better than I ever could. Last year, at MileHiCon, someone asked me why I write about Aztecs, something I’d never been asked before, and I really struggled to give an answer; I felt the need to give a really compelling answer because the question was posed by a Chicano, but I managed only to mumble something completely stupid because I’d never really thought about why. I’m sure my flustered response probably left him considering that I was just another white person robbing his culture for the “oohs” and “aahs”. I can’t begrudge him the curiosity about my motivations though. And with my first novel coming out soon (which has zero white people in it), perhaps it’s time to really address that question in a serious, thoughtful way.

Why do I write specifically Aztec science fiction, fantasy and romance?

Well, I can’t imagine writing anything else; even if I never published again, the urge to write these stories would not go away. Hell, I left my agent because I thought that, to continue down the traditional publishing path, I would have to give up writing Aztec-influenced stories, and quite frankly, I would rather have no traditional publishing career than do that (and I think she knew this and so gave me no answer when I flat out asked her if that’s what I needed to do). I have no way of describing it other than “It’s where my heart lies.” When I try to think of anything else in my life that I’ve ever felt this passionate about, there is nothing. The only thing that kept me from pursuing a higher degree in Mesoamerican studies was my lack of Spanish-speaking skills (oh, if only I could go back to high school and insist on taking Spanish rather than French….)

Growing up, I had very narrow ideas about the Aztecs; all I knew was the human sacrifice stuff, and cities of gold. We never studied them in high school; there were far more important things to study, like European history and literature, because in American academics, that is the center of the world. No one talked about things like plague blankets or the Trail of Tears, or how disease massively depopulated Central America in the decade following the Spanish Conquest. Mexico was this mysterious, colorful place full of maracas and sombreros and burritos, filled with people my stepfather called all kinds of terrible names for no apparent reason I could ascertain.

Then, in college, I took an introductory history class on Native Americans, which covered the North American tribes, but also the Inca, Maya, and the Aztecs. My professor was Chicano, and he spent a great deal of time talking about Aztec culture, with a lot of passion, and he stripped away all of my childhood misconceptions and provided a glimpse of things I never knew, had never heard of. I was already quite interested in mythology in general by that time, so learning the basics about Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli lit a fire in me; I’d never heard of them, and I’d never read anything about them, in either fiction nor nonfiction. But I wanted to. This was back in the days before Amazon, so finding such work was no easy task; in fact, I never did find anything like that back then.

The following year, I got into Clarion West and they encouraged us to try new things with our writing; strive for greatness and not be afraid of failing while reaching for it. So I decided to write what I couldn’t find, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I took still more classes in Mesoamerican studies as part of my degree, and learned still more and more interesting things about the complexity of Aztec culture. There was so much to tell, so much that everyday people were mistaken about Aztec culture and religion, and this fact is really at the crux of why I write what I write.

I’ll pretty much try reading anything I can find that has to do with either Aztecs or the Maya, because there’s so little out there, and while there is some really good stuff–stuff that shows care and passion for the culture–there’s also a great deal of simplistic focus on the more “sensationalist” aspects, like blood sacrifice; and overwhelmingly, that focus is negative. The default setting for Aztecs in fantasy is as the bad guys, using human sacrifice and blood magic to do evil things, and this focus serves to demonize not just the Aztec culture, but Mexican culture by proxy. And not just in literature, but in real life; probably the most disturbing example I’ve seen was an article in an American police publication calling for Mexicans to forsake their native heritage and the Nahuatl language as evil because Mexican drug gangs embrace it–and implied that only criminals would embrace it. There’s a long tradition in Western culture of demonizing Mesoamerican culture, starting all the way back with the Spanish conquistadors and their exaggerations and outright lies to justify the wholesale slaughter of the native peoples, and it’s time we said enough–particularly white people.

Stop with the evil Aztec blood magic already!

It’s fucking lazy at best, but mostly complete ignorant bullshit. There is a ton more to Aztec culture and history than just human sacrifice (and our modern, Christanized view of it), and it’s all as important and worthy of attention and understanding as western history and literature. Everyone knows who King Arthur was, but how many of us know about Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl? How about why human sacrifice was practiced at all? How many people know what the Triple Alliance was, and about the politics of the Valley at the time Cortes landed? Anyone who claims that Mesoamerican culture contributed nothing noteworthy to western civilization is just stupid (and yes, I’ve seen this said in discussions of why Mesoamerican history is not taught with the same depth as European history in primary school). There are countless stories worth telling, history worth knowing, and that’s why I write what I write.

And as this is not my culture, I know I will get things wrong; it’s inevitable that my upbringing in white western culture will cloud my view and influence the way I tell stories, but that’s no excuse to not try. It’s no excuse to not keep learning and trying to do better with the next story/novel. It will be uncomfortable–sometimes even painful and embarrassing–facing my mistakes, but I will become a better writer–and human being–for doing so.

Authors to read:

Ernest Hogan

Sabrina Vourvoulias

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Aliette de Bodard

Zoe Saadia

Happy Wednesday everyone! Thank you everyone who entered the contest to win a digital ARC of The Bone Flower Throne; only 18 people entered, and I felt a bit bad excluding 3 people at random, so everyone who entered will receive a copy for their enjoyment. What is 3 extra copies anyway? So look for my email in your inbox sometime today.

If you missed the opportunity to enter, or you don’t have an ereader, I will be running a print ARC contest on Goodreads within the next week or so.

Mexican food is probably my favorite food there is; I love burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and chile rellenos, though I do find it difficult to handle the hotter sauces (I blame my having grown up eating a steady diet of bland American food). Much of the Mexican food eaten in the United States isn’t authentic Mexican food, but rather Tex-Mex, an Americanized cuisine heavy with cheeses and meats and uses non-Mexican spices such as cumin. Though even authentic Mexican food is different from the true authentic foods of the Americas. The diets of the Pre-Conquest native tribes were broad and flavorful, and while they greatly influenced modern Mexican cuisine, much has gone missing. Over the course of several blog posts, we’ll take a look at food in Mesoamerica, starting with the basic stables of the Mesoamerican diet: maize, beans, squash, and chile.

Food in Mesoamerica - Maize

Maize came in all manner of colors and shapes.

Maize – The Most Important Cereal

The maize plant was domesticated early in human history and practically every part of the plant is edible at one stage or another. The Aztecs made sweet drinks from it, or ground it and added it to water to make atole, a sort of watery-mash consumed daily at the noon hour. They had countless varieties of tlaxcala (tortillas), each made from a different type of maize, and they there were just as many varieties of tamales, made with various meats and maize dough wrapped in maize husks, for easy transportation. During times of famine, they even ate the tassels. There was no more important ingredient in all the Americas than maize, and this is reflected in how many tribes worshiped it in deity form; Centeotl to the Aztecs, “First Father” to the Maya, and Zaramama to the Inca.

Food in Mesoamerica - beans

Beans, beans, the magical fruit….

Beans – the Protein Powerhouse

The domestication of beans in the New World began around the time of Christ and the Aztecs used a wide variety in their food as a primary source of protein. They were mostly boiled and eaten in stews, though they were also baked and ground into powder for later reconstitution. Some of the common and most popular beans were string beans, Lamon, ayacotli (scarlet runner), and sieva beans. The Lamon bean in particular became a big hit with the Italians and stories speak of them being among the tribute sent to the Pope by Charles V after the conquering of the Americas.

Food in Mesoamerica - squash

Aztec nobility drank their chocolate in calabash cups.

Squash – the Earliest Dinnerware

Squash finishes out the traditional triad of Mesoamerican foodstuffs. Domestication of squash plants predates the invention of pottery in the Americas, for hollowed out calabash gourds were used as cups and bowls even as late as the Aztec period. Like maize, the Mesoamericans utilized practically all parts of the plant, eating them either cooked or raw, but the most important part of the squash was the seeds, which could be boiled, or baked then ground into powder to make sauces or added to water or juice.

Food in Mesoamerica - chile

If you were a naughty child, your mother might have held you over these while they roasted.

Chile – the Forgotten Staple

The final staple is the chile. Most historians only name maize, beans, and squash as the most important ingredients in Mesoamerican diet, but chile is just as pervasive. The native tribes cultivated three species of chile and they used them in practically every dishes. In fact, chile was so important that when one performed religious penance, one gave up both salt and chile for the duration of that time. They used the fumes from roasting them to not only fumigate their homes of bugs, but to also discipline unruly and defiant children; there’s even stories of it being used as a chemical weapon when stuffed along with smoldering ash into gourds and thrown over the walls of enemy fortresses. The natives ate chiles raw, cooked, dried and ground, mixed in stews, in sauces, and cooked onto meat; they even added chile powder to their cups of chocolate.

Next time, we’ll take a look at some other popular food items, some of them readily recognizable while others might make your stomach turn.

Only one day left to enter to win a digital ARC of The Bone Flower Throne. Find out how to enter here.


deviantART mascot Fella

It’s Friday, so time for another round of featured artists. Today’s picks are cartoonists who present their Aztec-inspired content in new and interesting ways. Rather than focusing on the whole blood sacrifice bit, they focus on making their characters and message kid friendly and accessible.

Danielle Brown

hey Quetz by ~doingwell on deviantART

Danielle Brown is a cartoonist from Orange County, California, and she’s living my childhood dream. I absolutely adore her work and have been following it for a several years on deviantART. She did the artwork for the game app Rocket Weasel and she currently works for Freeze Tag Games. I found her via a series of drawings of Aztec gods she posted here, here, and here, and I fell in love with the rest of her work. She keeps a blog here and a tumbler here.

Gina Chacón

Cihuamiztontli by =SaiyaGina on deviantART

Gina Chacón is an illustrator/graphic designer from Chihuahua, Mexico. She does a lot of anime-style work and all of her stuff is just beautiful. I particularly love this piece. When I first saw the above picture, I was immediately reminded of my own One World alternate history series, with the mix of traditional Aztec elements with futuristic technology. And I love the little axototl’s floating in the tank behind the girl. She keeps a Tumber here.

Angel Barba

Quetz vs Tezca by ~mictlantectli on deviantART

Angel Barba is from Guadalajara, Mexico and he writes and illustrates a Peanuts-style comic featuring the Aztec gods, meant to teach about Aztec culture, history, and mythology. I really enjoy the cuteness of his characters, particularly the ones that typically get a very dark treatment in art, like Tezcatlipoca or Lord Death. I could hug little Tezca in his adorable jaguar suit. Here you can see an animated video of Quetza telling the Axototl how he discovered corn (it’s in Spanish. I’m hopeful that eventually they will add English subtitles to their videos).

Stay tuned next Friday for more featured artists.