Food in Mesoamerica – The Four Staples (History)

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.

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