🌽hello again, my little 🐠 mimichtin its time again for another thread on the Aztec Empire.
according to a little poll floating about, y'all were most keen on leaning about Food and Waste Management of the empire, which I can talk about for days. #StarTalk
A couple things to remember:
*This largely applies to the capital city of Tenochtitlan
*Because of Spanish/Catholic genocide, much information is missing/inaccurate/false
*I'm doing my best
*You can tip me for my work!
So lets get started with the most basic question: What the hell did the Mexica eat? Great question.
By and large, the Mexica were a vegetarian society. That's not to say they did not eat meat, but rather that meat was reserved for festive occasions for most of the population. The higher castes that could afford it, certainly ate it more often, but that was generally not the thing. As we talked about earlier, this was a society focused on being humble and not wasteful.
So what did they eat?
The number one most important crop of the Mexica, so important that there is a goddess with a bloody, gorey festival dedicated to her in order to ensure a rich harvest is, of course
Corn was and even today remains an extremely important staple food to the Mexica, Mexicans, and other indigenous tribes of the region. It grows well in the hot climate, and when processed properly* and combined with the number 2 staple crop, creates a completely balance nutrient.
The number 2 staple crop is of course Beans. Pinto and black beans which remain vital to Mexican cooking today, when combined with corn, created a meal balanced enough that it rivaled even balanced meat-eating diets.
WIth out third staple crop 🎃 squash, we round out what has been called in the past the Three Sisters or food trinity. This (in varying subspecies) has formed the basis for many, many indigenous diets across the Americas.
Of course there are loads more foods native to the Americas that the Mexica grew in abundance: Amaranth (a grain), chia, tomatoes, chilies, avocados, cactus fruit, cactus, honey, agave, mushrooms. Further south we get pineapples, sweet potatoes, papaya, vanilla, and chooocolate.
But.. wait. That's all produce. I said they ate meat sometimes, didn't I? So what meats were present in the Americas before the Europeans introduced cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, and sheep? 🦗 🦃
Lets get this part out of the way: the Mexica ate dogs. A hairless breed called itzcuintli were one of the two domesticated livestock kept for eating. The other was turkeys.
Now, I know what the Western mindset is about this, but don't jump to villifying them. The Mexica revered their dogs, kept them as very loved and fat pets. They were buried with their owners upon death, to lead their owner to Mictlan, the city of the dead. But, yknow, they were also practical people. It happened.
There's actually a superstition about this.. That if a person were to trick their dog (like we pretend to throw balls but really don't, or hide treats) then the dog would in turn trick them on the journey to Mictlan, and not help them cross the river, leaving their owner to get across themselves or wander in purgatory forever.
So.. yknow.. Be nice to your puppies.
As a short aside, as always feel free to ask questions. I may not get to them right away, but I will get to them.
The other domesticated critter they kept were turkeys, both for meat and eggs.
Aside from that! The Mexica were hunters, of course. Deer, tapir, iguana, rabbits, wild boar, opossums... But this is Tenochtitlan, a city surrounded by water, so their primary diet was rich in seafood, insects, and birds!
Turtles, salamanders, frogs, mollusks, shellfish, ants, grasshoppers, ducks, geese, pelicans, gulls, pigeons, quail, and though not an animal- an algae called spirulina. it was formed into high protein loaves that i'm told were pretty cheesy.
The question guinea pigs was raised, and yes those are native to the Americas, it was primarily the Inca and modern day Peruvians which domesticated them for food. It may have been a staple food in some parts of the Empire!
Anyway, lets get back to the subject of 🌽 It cannot be stressed enough how direly important corn was to the empire. It forms the basis of many, many important dishes and has floated the nutritional needs of tribes for many generations.
But wait, you heard that corn heavy diets are unhealthy? How did the Mexica get away with it? How do indigenous tribes get away with it? Well, lets back to where I mention a special processing method vital to this diet.
❗ Nixtamalization ❗ is the process of cooking down corn with lime, either as an addition in chunks or as it was most likely discovered, cooked on top or inside of lime cookware.
Now, technically, this can be accomplished with any alkaline solution (wood ash lye is another option) but its most likely limestone was used, so we'll stick with lime. The corn would be cooked, soaked for several hours, then washed thoroughly, hulled (made easier by this process), and finally processed.
Maize that underwent nixtamalization was ground down into a much, much finer powder (called masa flour) than most Americans might be used to seeing. In the states, we're most familiar with cornmeal, dried ground corn that did not undergo this special method.
Whats the difference? Cornmeal cannot be made independently into a dough while masa flour only needs the addition of water and salt. There is also a key difference in nutrients.
Photo below. Hover for text.
Maize 🌽 that has undergone nixtamalization is easier to grind, better tasting, lower (up to 90% reduction) in carcinogenic compounds from mycotoxin infestations.
It also unbinds niacin that is otherwise indigestible to humans and makes it available for us to absorb, warding off serious outbreaks of illnesses such as pellegra which occur in countries were corn in a staple food, but has not undergone treatment, and lastly reduces the amount of protein zein, creating a balance amino chain.
When the Spanish returned to Spain with corn, it spread across the continent where it took hold in many rural towns. Unfortunately, the process of nixtamalization did not also immigrate with them- presumably because of a lack of understanding of nutrition, and the flawed thought that mechanical separation was good enough.
It was not.
The result were sweeping outbreaks of pellegra and kwashiorkor, diseases linked to famine and serious nutrient deficiencies.
Buuuut that wasn't a problem for the Aztecs. They had mastered this art and were lean, strong, and fit on a diet of corn, beans, squash, and crickets. Generations of fierce warriors, artists, and farmers were bread on it, leading to a stable and prosperous city.
But wait, wasn't Tenochtitlan a city on a lake? Wasn't it, itself, a city raised from the lake? Its a mystery how it supported itself, how did it actually feed the people?
Glad you asked. Introducing: chināmitl!
Also known as chinampa, these were artificially constructed swaths of farmable land build up by stones, twigs, dirt, and fertilizer. These constructs and their management were so doggone efficient that they could produce up to 4 crops per year!
CW: Human waste stuff
The chinampas are the meeting ground directly between food production and waste management.
Toilets were basic. A hole in a slab of stone and something below to contain it, but unlike other societies which washed it away or buried it (or dumped it in the streets and caused mass near extinction events via disease), the solids were turned over to the fields and became rich fertilizer for the crops.
The urine was separated out and used as a setting agent for dyed textile.
Chinampas and their mode of fertilization were so effective that they accounted fro 75% of food production within the city. The rest was made up by fishing, hunting, gathering, and trade combined.
There are some places in southern Mexico where this is still the way of farmers, but largely it has gone away. During the Spanish invasion, the lakes were drained. In recent times, earthquakes, climate change, and war has made it almost impossible to return to roots on a large scale.
There are no records of garbage dumps within the Aztec Empire. This city ran cleanly and recycled every scrap they possibly could:
*human and animal wastes became fertilizer
*urine was collected by families in their homes and sold to the city
*anything burnable was collected and used to light the city at night
*wastefulness, littering, and dumping in public spaces was an offense punishable by death, especially towards the nobility classes
The city was even known to employ street sweepers and janitorial staff in order to keep the city as clean as possible and keep the gears of their system running smoothly. Without cooperation at all levels, this would not have possible and the Mexica society would not have been as fierce and long lasting as it was.
The arrival of the Spanish is truly the end of the world here. Their utter clusterfuck of destruction is one that Mexico City is still dealing with to this very day.
Its a maddening thing to look at Spanish written codices and see my ancestors villified as barbarians. Its true that famine and power corruption had taken hold of the empire eventually as all power does eventually corrupt, but this was not who the Mexica were. Our people were bright, humble, strong. They were invested in education and the arts and preserving the world around them. They were not the arbiters of destruction that they have been made out to be. That was Hernan Cortes and his war.
A short break to sort out my thoughts and get some water.
Its hot asf today. If you haven't yet, HYDRATE! 🌊
And we're back.
Okay! So now we know what foods were wild, native and domesticated, we know how they were processed, we know how they were grown, and we know how the end product got recycled.. So.. WHAT DID THEY ACTUALLY EAT?!
Well, tacos 🌮 Like that one there is a trope because its true. Corn tortillas (made from maize processed via nixtamalization) accompanied basically every meal as it still does today in a lot of Mexican households. You stuff it with beans, corn, rice, meat and munch away.
One of the oldest known foods consumed by the Mexica are tamales! Tamales remain important to modern Mexican families, often making an appearance around Christmas time where the whole family gets involved in the long process of making them.
While today tamales are often pork, chicken or beef, those of the Empire would have been filled with beans, squash, crickets, or hunted game.
Tamales were the breakfast of choice for most farmers and often accompanied soldiers out to the battlefield. Wrapped up in corn husks and steamed, they traveled and held well over several hours.
Another breakfast staple for kids and adults alike was atole! Made from masa, water, cinnamon, vanilla, fruits, and later on, sugar, it was a thin but hearty gruel that sustains a person for hours. Later, chocolate added made it champurrado, both remain popular during the cold months today.
Ah! @kelbesque asks: "Is the "tamal" of "tamales" related to "nixtamalization"?
The answer is.. probably!
The nahuatl word for tamal is "tamalli" meaning "wrapped food". While the 'tamal' in nixtamalization is also 'tamalli' here it seems to mean "uncooked corn (dough)".
They are related and both extremely important to the culture, but given the destruction of history and that we don't especially know which came first, its hard to really give a definite answer of which came first.
Interesting! I have heard of champorado from the Philipines, but not tamales!
A comment from Lucky Duck: "we filipinxs also have tamales and champurrado (champorado)! but instead of corn, we use rice. tamales are wrapped in banana leaves and are also eaten for breakfast. champorado is more like arroz con leche but with chocolate and is eaten for breakfast with dried salty fish."
Tamales, of course, are found all over south america. Beliz, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, and so many other countries have their own versions of tamales made with their own traditional regional foods, sometimes wrapped in corn husks, banana or plantain leaves, or sometimes is just the filling with no breading around it!
There is also a special festival once observed in the Mexica Empire that has to do with tamales.
Called Atamalqualiztli, this is a week long fasting period sometime around late October where the only meal was a midday tamal with no filling, soaked in water.
The belief was that the food needed time to revitalize itself, so that it wouldn't lose its nutritious properties. We know today that isn't true, but back then the fear was that those that did not participate would contract leprosy, and detractors were punished.
Lets talk briefly about 🍫 chocolate 🍪
Cocoa was not able to be grown within the Empire and was traded for with southern tribes and was so valuable that unscrupulous people with counterfeit them by filling empty shells with caked up dirt and mud!
Now, clearly, chocolate was a luxury and something not consumed regularly or "without thinking" as the Spanish referred to it. It was considered to be a powerful intoxicant and consumed by warriors just before battle as well as priests and nobles.
It was prepared in many different ways, savory with chilies and spices to make mole (mow-le) sauce that was cooked and poured over veggies and meat, or with hot water, vanilla, and spices. as a drink for the nobility and warriors or the common folk at festivals. Chocolate as we know it today did not come to be for quite a long while still.
Finally, cannibalism. In the 1970s it was postulated that the Mexica had resorted to "large scale cannibalism" in order to make up for the lack of protein in their diets which, as covered, was not actually lacking in their diets which was very well rounded.
There are some texts pointing to ceremonial cannibalism carried out by priests, but largely this is unfounded racist bullshit intended to villify an already suffering people.
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