Developing Mexican Food:
Globalization Early On
E. N. Anderson
University of California, Riverside
Mexican food today is extremely diverse, and has a complicated background. My view is that of a Mayanist who has worked in southeast Mexico and traveled widely in the country. Already long before Columbus, Native American foodways were spreading widely; the Maya were powerfully influenced by South American foods from chocolate to manioc. The Spanish Colonial period brought not only Spanish foods but also Arab and African foodways, all diverse in themselves. Modern influences have not been less complex. This all tests current theories of “culture” and “appropriation,” and makes a world-systems approach to anthropology more useful and predictive. Some comparative notes on folk music are added to show the extent of cultural borrowings, since they track foodways closely.
My work in Mexico has largely been with the Yucatec Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, but I have traveled all over Mexico, visiting every state and major region. I am a food anthropologist, so I have sampled everything from ant pupae at a fine upscale restaurant in Guanajuato to wasp larvae on a remote rainforest back road in Quintana Roo. In two years of living and traveling in Mexico, spread over 40 years of my life, the only bad meals I recall were in United States-type restaurants.
Much of what follows is sourced from K’oben, forthcoming book by Amber O’Connor and myself (2017; see also Anderson 2010). Much is from, or in, Jeffrey Pilcher’s classic Que vivan los tamales! (1998), which is by far the best, most thorough, and most authoritative work in English on Mexican food. There are other good histories in Spanish.
The incredible richness and variety of Mexican folk culture never ceases to amaze me, and food is not the least of its manifestations. Mexican culture today is a product of many Native American cultures interacting with Spanish culture. It is much more than that, however. Three things are not often appreciated about Mexican culture. First, Mexican Indigenous cultures were extremely varied and were constantly influencing each other. Second, Spain in the 1500s and 1600s was itself a region of cultural mixing. Third, Spain was by no means the only Old World country that influenced Mexico. Mexico has had very substantial immigration from Africa, Ireland, Lebanon, Syria, Philippines, China, France, Germany, and elsewhere, to say nothing of the United States and most parts of Latin America. All these areas contributed to foodways.
The Native American heritage is the really basic one. Mexico still depends on the classic maize, beans, chiles, and squash. The commonest species of these are all Mexican domesticates. Maize (Zeo mays) was domesticated about 7000 years ago in the Balsas River drainage; geneticists have run it down to an origin in the wild teosinte grass of middle elevations in that drainage area. At least three species of beans were domesticated in central Mexico; these are frijol beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), teparies (P. acutifolius), and scarlet runner beans (P. coccineus). The tepary bean is famously drought-resistant and has been used in drought-prone parts of Africa as well as Mexico. The fourth common species, the lima bean (P. lunatus), was certainly domesticated in Peru, but a different form, the sieva bean, may have been independently domesticated in Mexico. The sieva bean is now rare and little known, but my Maya friends in Quintana Roo grow several delicious varieties that seriously need saving and propagating.
Squash also come in many species. Pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) were domesticated in Mexico and probably independently in what is now the southern United States. Winter sqush (C. maxima, C. moschata), chayote (Sechium edule) and spaghetti squash (C. ficifolia) also occur; C. maxima is probably South American, but got to Mexico early. With bottle gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris), of uncertain origin, these gave Mexican Indigenous people plenty of choices. I should point out that the tender leaves, vine tips, and flowers of the squash are also eaten and are incredibly good as well as vitamin-rich.
Chiles also come in multiple forms. The common, ordinary varieties of chile, from which the non-hot bell pepper was recently developed, is Capsicum annuum and is native to Mexico. It is a small annual plant. The Tabasco chile (C. frutescens), by contrast, is a large perennial bush. It is known by its Maya name of maax in southern Mexico, including Tabasco. The habanero (C. chinense), as its name shows, came from Cuba to Mexico; it is originally South American. Yet another species, the most flavorful and meaty of all and one of the hottest, is the rocoto or manzano (C. pubescens), another South American. It somehow got from Peru to Oaxaca and around there, probably after the Spanish conquest. There are other species of chile in South America. It is highly interesting that so many species were separately domesticated in different areas. The reason is not just their delightful warmth; they are also highly antibiotic and antifungal. They may have been domesticated for medicine or for use in preserving food—chile powder or crushed chile is a good preservative.
With these four species, you can live a happy life. Maize provides basic calories, beans provide good protein, squash and chiles provide vitamins, and chiles in particular provide incredible quantities of vitamin C and the B complex. One problem is that maize contains phytic acid, which bonds with mineral nutrients and with niacin (vitamin B3) making them unavailable to digestion. So the Mexican people learned very early to process maize with limewater—not from limes, but CaO made by burning calcium carbonate—thus producing nixtamal. The lime neutralizes the phytic acid. The limewater processing was probably originally used to tenderize the maize, but then seen to help nutrition (Katz et al. 1974). The maize needs tenderizing in the first place because soft kernels get eaten by bruchid weevils. So weevils cause civilization: they made people select for hard corn, but then the people had to tenderize it, which made it nutritionally adequate to support cities.
These many species were only the beginning. Mexican Indigenous people domesticated so many plants that it would take me much of this hour just to read off the names. One triumph was the avocado, a fantastic source of oil, protein and vitamins that grows like a weed in central Mexican mountain conditions. The poverty diet of the central Mexican people at the time of Spanish conquest was noted as tortillas and guacamole, then made of just avocado, chile, and salt. This is a perfect diet—it has all the essentials—and I think it’s the tastiest poverty diet I ever found. (It beats the European equivalent of stale bread and water.) Among the hundreds of other species are amaranth, chia sage, and millets. Amaranth, chia, and chenopod species provided seed crops that were much more nutritious than maize. They grow easily and were essential staples to many Indigenous groups. In addition, chocolate, sweet potatoes, and manioc came up very early from South America. There are proto-Maya words for them—at least the last two—which means the Maya had them 5000 years ago.
Domestic animals were few. The dog came over the Bering Straits with the humans. It was eaten by some groups. The turkey was domesticated in Mexico. The muscovy duck (Cairinia moschata), native from Mexico south but domesticated in Peru, seems to have come up fairly early. Why Mexico never domesticated mountain sheep remains a mystery. Javalis (known in English as peccaries) are locally tamed and farmed on a small scale, but they compete with humans for food—unlike pigs, they can’t eat garbage; they have to have maize and other quality fare. So they were not domesticated, which is sad, because they are delightful pets (at least as smart as dogs) as well as very good eating. If I were young I’d go domesticate them.
All this was only the beginning. The Indigenous people developed great cuisines from the many domesticated and wild foods they had. Early Maya paintings show vast amounts of tamales, evidently baked in earth ovens, as they still often are in Mayaland. Also shown are fish, deer, and many other animal foods. Chocolate was an elite drink; the Maya may very well be the people who developed it as a tasty drink by learning how to ferment the seeds. The unfermented pulp and ground seeds are very pleasant, but fermenting is necessary to bring out the actual chocolate flavor. It is fitting that our word “cacao” is taken straight from Maya. Around many Classic Maya cups is written a line of Maya hieroglyphics. When I was a student, we learned that the Maya were deeply religious, and this line must have been a powerful spell or sacred prayer. Well, we can now read Maya writing, and that line turned out to mean “This is so-and-so’s chocolate cup.” So much for romance.
The Aztecs and other central Mexican Indigenous people spoke Nahuatl, a beautiful and expressive language. It is not related to Maya, but is related to the Indigenous languages of southern California. Many of our familiar food words today are “Nahuatlismos”: Chile, tamale, chocolate, tomato, chayote, achiote, camote (sweet potato), chia, jicama, and more. In Nahuatl, there was a three-part division of the major foods: tamalli (tamales), tlaxcalli (tortillas), and taballi (food to eat with the tortillas, such as beans and guacamole). Other Indigenous languages of the Mexican realm gave us abalone (California Costanoan), and many more.
The Aztecs loved good food. One story says it all. Fray Diego Duran compiled a history in the mid-16th century, based on Azec accounts. They told him of a war with a city named Coyoacan, which means “coyote place.” The Aztecs besieged it but it would not yield, and had fierce warriors. So the Aztec monarch said: “’Let the guards take ducks, waterfowl, fish, and other creatures from the lagoon that cannot be obtained in Coyoacan. Let them be…cooked or toasted in such a way that their rich odor and the smoke that rises from these delicacies will penetrate the city…. Old men and old women will become feeble and die of longing for the food they cannot have.’ The king’s orders were carried out: they prepared many loaves of ezcahuitli, a type of small red worm….together with ducks, fish, and frogs….” They cooked these upwind of Coyoacan, and the scent drove the people there to distraction. They made a desperate sally, were defeated, and their city was taken (Duran 1994:92).
Other sources tell of equally mouthwatering dishes made from acociles (crustaceans), axolotls (salamanders; the name literally means “water monsters”), and other aquatic foods. The Aztecs grew all sorts of fruit, from all over Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, and had large botanical gardens (Duran 1994:205). Duran also tells of Motecuhzoma (“Montezuma” to moderns) feasting on game, fish, chocolate, and so on, including flesh from human sacrifices, and then ending the feast with hallucinogenic mushrooms, which put them “out of their minds and…in a worse state than if they had drunk a great quantity of wine” (Duran 1994;407; take note and stick to wine and forget those Psilocybe mushrooms). Bernardino de Sahagun and other early chroniclers also describe Aztec food. Sahagun describes merchants feasting on turkey, dog, tomatoes, chiles, chocolate, and occasionally human sacrifices (Sahagun 1979:48, 67, 75). However, it is clear that very little human flesh was eaten; it was not a significant protein source. Sahagun also went into detail on all the incredible variety of foods available in markets and elite kitchens (1979:69) and on varieties of maize, beans, and other crops (1963:279-290; see also Sahagun 1959, 1961). They all agree that it was an incredibly rich, varied diet, even for the relatively poor. Some of the dishes described by Sahagun are “turkey with a sauce of small chilis, tomatoes, and ground squash seeds” (patzcalmolli, what we would now in Nahuatl call mole pipian); “white fish with yellow chili…newt with yellow chili…winged ants with savory herbs; locusts with chia; maguey grubs with a sauce of small chilis…a sauce of unripened plums with white fish….tamales stuffed with amaranth greens…small tuna cactus fruit with fish eggs…” and on for many pages (Sahagun 1979:37-38). A major aspect Indigenous Mexican cuisine is the use of insects and other invertebrates. Over 300 kinds of insects are eaten (Ramos-Elorduy 1991, 1998; Ramos Elorduy and Pino Moreno 1989).
Drinks, besides water, consisted largely of atoles of various sorts. Atole (Nahuatl atolli) is finely ground seed meal beaten up in water. It was usually made from maize, but also from beans, fruit, and so on. Pinole (pinolli) was another seed meal drink, often made from wild seeds. Atole could be flavored with chocolate, chile, honey, and other substances (Sahagun 1961:93). It is still common. Pozole (pozolli) was, in those days, probably just nixtamal beaten up in water, as it still is in Maya Mexico. That wonderful pozole you get in restaurants now, with pork and hominy and chiles and more, is probably a recent invention from west Mexico, especially Jalisco.
It is said that a true civilization has to have its alcohol, and Mexico had various types of maize beers, as well as honey mead and combinations of the two. Central Mexico had pulque, the fermented sap of the flower stalks of agaves (Agave spp. which are not cacti). There is some chance that they had learned to distill alcohol. Very simple stills are found in remote areas of west Mexico. Some Mexican ethnobotanist friends of mine argue that the stills go back to pre-Columbian times. However, they resemble Philippine stills, and most of us think they probably came over on the Manila galleon in the early days. Sailors early learned in the Philippines to make these simple stills, and probably brought the technology with them. Mezcal is distilled not from pulque, but from the juice extracted by slow-cooking the flowering stem bases of agave and related plants, and then fermenting and distilling that. Tequila is mezcal made from the blue agave (Agave tequilana), originally from the Tequila area of Jalisco, but now widely planted, to the annoyance of residents of the actual Tequila area. Incidentally, a word of warning: Don’t try to drive in the town of Tequila. The old, steep, cobblestone streets are filled with drivers who have been sampling pretty freely at the many distilleries in town.
Other parts of Mexico had their own Indigenous foods. Heavy seafood dependence along the coast of the Gulf of California lives on in Sinaloa’s incomparable seafood cuisine. Similar pre-Columbian traditions give us excellent seafood in Campeche and Veracruz. In northeast Mexico, the Teenek Maya—called Huastec by the Nahuatl—baked very large tamales (as some Yucatec Maya do). These Huasteca tamales were known as zacahuil, and still exist. In this age of Guinness records, towns vie to produce ever larger ones, and some now weigh a hundred pounds. They are one of the few dishes in the world to be immortalized in folksong; every traditional Huastecan singer can perform “Zacahuil,” often in the wonderful folk style of the region, influenced by Scots-Irish fiddling styles learned from nearby Texas.
A final Native American influence came from the Antilles, but it appeared mostly with the Spanish. Outside of habanero peppers, the Spanish introduced few if any foods from the Antilles, but they brought several words from the Arawak language there: maize for corn, yuca for manioc, and a few others. Our word “barbecue” comes from Arawak barbacoa, the frame on which meat was smoked for preserving it. Hammock, tobacco, and cigar are also Arawak.
The Spanish were amazed at the productive maize fields. They had read in the Bible about grain that returned a hundredfold on seed; they had never seen such a thing—Spanish wheat in the middle ages returned about three or four for one. So when they saw maize literally returning a hundredfold, they were duly impressed. Their diet back home had often been limited to bread, olives, wine, and cheese; now they could have game, fish, vegetables, spices, everything. They soon began bringing the best New World foods back home.
Merchants in Spain tried hard to keep wheat, almonds, olives, wine, and other specialties from being produced in Mexico. Wheat soon got away from them, since it grows extremely well in northern Mexico and in the Bajío (the high, beautiful center of Mexico). In northwest Mexico, the Indigenous people either died out or mounted heroic resistance to the Spanish. The Seri and Yaqui resistance movements against genocide stand as some of the most amazingly heroic stories in the entire history of humanity. Maize was thus hard to get, so wheat became the staple. In these areas the wheat tortilla—which, unlike the maize one, requires shortening—became staple food.
Olives, grapes, and almonds were hard to grow in central and south Mexico, and remained Spanish monopolies for a long time. The main contribution of the Old World, in most of Mexico, was domestic livestock. This proved a very mixed blessing. It provided cheap and abundant meat and cheese, but the flocks multiplied, overran Indigenous cultivation, ate crops, caused horrific erosion, led to massive deforestation, and generally ruined much of the landscape, causing untold misery and environmental damage that is still getting worse all the time (Melville 1997; Painter and Durham 1995). Those who deplore Native America’s lack of domestic livestock (e.g. Diamond 1997) need to explain why enormously reducing the food production and potential of Mexico is somehow a good thing.
Bread and domestic-animal meat soon became core parts of the Mexican diet, and grapes in the dried form of raisins became rather common. Olives, almonds, capers, wine, and so on remained luxuries for the Spanish rich. However, the real excitement came when converted Jews and Muslims were sent to Mexico. The Spanish spent 800 years fighitng the Moors—Muslims of Arab and Berber ancestry—for control of Spain. (“Moor” and “Morocco” both derive from Arabic maghrib, “sunset” or “far west,” because the area in question is the farthest west of the Arab lands.) The Moors had developed an exceedingly elaborate and sophisticated cuisine. They had also introduced oranges, sugar, dates, rice, and many other foods to Spain (Watson 2008). The Romans had begun introducing spices, but the Moors really popularized them, especially the Arabic signature mix of cumin, coriander, black pepper, and (often) cinnamon. Sesame seeds are also a Moorish item. Also Moorish are the limes that are now so totally basic to Mexican food, and the bitter oranges that partially replace limes in Yucatan.
The Spanish finally conquered the last Moorish stronghold in 1492. Yes, the date is significant, because it was the loot from conquest that financed Columbus, and the luxury of having finished the Reconquista that made possible a new conquest on a far larger scale. But after the conquest the conquered Muslims and Jews persisted in rebelling, since they were subject to appalling oppression, brutality, and exploitation. They were forced to become nominally Christian, but many held out in secret. Those that would not convert were killed or forced to flee, finding refuge in Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. Even conversos were not trusted, and vast numbers of them were sent to Mexico to get rid of them. Here they were often sent to the more isolated areas, at first Puebla (it was isolated then!) and later New Mexico, where Moorish culture persisted until very recently. Some years ago I noted a classic Mesopotamian Arab recipe in a traditional New Mexican cookbook by Cleofas Jaramillo (1981). Gary Nabhan, an authority on these connections, found that the Jaramillo family did indeed have a Moorish converso background (Nabhan 2014). As so often, foodways are mirrored in musical styles; New Mexico is a living museum of Moorish songs, even today after many centuries. Older Hispanic singing styles are pure Moorish, and all the Hispanic traditions of the southwest are at least somewhat influenced, however indirectly, by that part of the heritage (see Robb 1980, but writing in the mid-20th century Robb did not realize the extent of Moorish influence in New Mexico, which was established largely in the 1980-2010 period).
One product of this was classic Puebla cooking. The famous mole poblano is the perfect fusion of Aztec and Moorish haute cuisine. It is basically a Moorish chicken dish fused with an Aztec turkey dish. From the Moorish side we get the spices, sesame seeds, onions, and basic overall technique. From the Aztec side we get the chocolate, tomato, and chile. Stuffed chiles and stuffed squash simply classic Moorish stuffed vegetable dishes that use Mexican instead of Near Eastern vegetables. They have gone home to Spain; you find them especially in Estremadura, the source of a large percentage of the original conquistadores and settlers. Countless other Mexican dishes, including essentially all the ways of cooking lamb and mutton, are Moorish.
Another interesting Moorish dish is migas, basically stale bread soaked in broth, the tharid of Arab cuisine. This is commoner in Spain than in Mexico, but it has found a home in Tepito, a rough working-class area of Mexico City. The people there took to making cheap migas by salvaging bones from butchers and restaurants and cooking them into stock, then making migas with stale bread and tortillas. With the inevitable Mexican (and especially Chilango) pride in making do, this got idealized as a marker of the tough, resourceful Tepitan, and thus called “vita-migas,” from vitaminas, Spanish for “vitamins” (Hernández 2009; he cites a wonderful Tepito saying that cannot be repeated in polite company but is all the better a life guide for that).
Another important derivative of Spanish and Moorish culture fusing with Native American culture was the belief that certain foods are heating to the body while others are cooling and still others are neutral. Heating foods include high-calorie and spicy ones; cooling foods are low-calorie, often green vegetables, and tend to seem cool to the touch; neutral foods are basic starch staples. This idea comes largely from ancient Greek medicine, but was developed largely by the Arab and Persian doctors in the early medieval period. In Mexico it fused with similar Indigenous ideas. One interesting and still locally important Indigenous idea is that wild areas, being cooler and moister than the hot sunny villages and fields, are cooling to the body and to foods produced there, while people and foods in the hot, dusty villages become hot. Either way, chiles, strong alcohol, and fried foods are heating; green vegetables are cooling; tortillas and rice are neutral. Many of you have encountered this belief. It is fossilized in the English language in the term “to catch a cold.” Within my lifetime, Americans almost all believed that colds came from experiencing cooling foods or from getting a chill or from similar cooling influences, not from catching a virus. This is only one of many Mexican and New World beliefs that come from fusion of Spanish and Indigenous worldviews (or ontologies, as anthropologists say).
The Spanish favorite animal was the pig. This stems from Celtic and Roman traditions. The pig also found a happy home in Puebla, to the point where I heard there a bit of lousy poetry: “Cuatro cosas come el Poblano: Cerdo, cochinito, puerco, y marrano.” “Pueblans eat four things: hog, pig, pork and boar.” Notably exaggerated, but too good to leave out of this talk.
Anyway, the Spanish became the world’s master sausage makers (along with the Portuguese and Italians), and they introduced a pretty full range of it to the New World, where it thrives best in rather dry highland areas like Mexico City and the Altos de Chiapas.
Another influence at this time was African. The Spanish imported an all too large number of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and its coasts and shores, because the Native Americans died out from disease and overwork. The entire Antilles were virtually depopulated within 50 years. The biggest reasons included smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever, to which the Africans had some resistance. The dreadful toll of disease hit Mexico more slowly and with less horrific effect, but by 1700 the Indigenous population had been reduced 90 to 95%, locally to 100%, and replaced in large party by people of African origin. Unlike the situation in the United States and in Brazil, Africans did not enormously influence the actual dishes, but they introduced a range of foods: black-eyed peas, yams, okra, African rice, watermelons, and many more. They made important foods out of the Native American peanut and sweet potato (both South American but introduced to Mexico before Columbus), which resemble African indigenous foods. The most African-influenced regions are the area around Veracruz and the Costa Chica of Guerrero, both of which preserve highly African-influenced musical styles, including the amazing Jarocho music of Veracruz. (“Jarocho,” originally a “racial” term for mixed African-Indigenous-Spanish locals, has become a general term of pride for Veracruzanos.) Both areas preserve some minor but interesting African foodways, including a fondness for fried foods. Meanwhile, the Manila Galleon kept Mexico in constant touch with the Philippines. The galleon ran every year, going east on the trade winds in the tropics, then coming back on the westerlies, taking something like a great circle route through the north Pacific. It coasted California on this run, and occasionally paused briefly. It ran to Acapulco, which thus was influenced by Filipino culture. Everything from distilling (see above) to the local names of some dishes (including black beans mixed with rice) came thus to Acapulco. Chinese immigrants occasionally appeared.
Thus by the 18th century, Mexican food was, quite literally, a total melting pot. Moving away from food a minute, we can learn from the story of Santiago de Murcia. He was a musician to the Queen of Spain at the start of the 1700s, playing French and Spanish guitar music, but she died, and the new queen liked only Italian music. So Santiago went to Mexico to seek his fortune, and there became fascinated with the local folk music, setting down many Native American and African dances (O’Dette 1998). The African dances included the world’s first recorded cumbias (or “cumbas’)—predating the 1990s cumbia boom by 250 years. All these were getting more and more Spanish-influenced, and vice versa. Spain and Mexico were musical melting pots as well as literal ones.
The 19th century brought yet more influences. The French arrived and briefly conquered Mexico before being expelled again (part of the process being the actually inconclusive battle celebrated on Cinco de Mayo—not a holiday in Mexico, which is much more concerned with its actual independence day, Sept. 16). Even before French rule, the prestige of French food had influenced Mexico. With French rule, it took the urban areas by storm, and the elites consumed little else for years. French bread influenced the Mexican bolillo and other wheat flour items. French cakes and pastries, French ways with meat and fish, French menus, and French table manners were general (Pilcher 1998). Meanwhile, other European influences accumulated; beer, more German and United States-style than French or Spanish, slowly replaced pulque and other home brews as the alcoholic drink of choice, and now Mexico is one of the world’s major brewers and consumers of that beverage. Otherwise, heavy German and Irish immigration in the 19th century has had surprisingly little obvious influence, but it certainly colors Mexican food and consumption habits.
After the French were expelled, but mostly in the 20th century, Indigenous Mexican food slowly came back into style. However, in the meantime, another huge influence had appeared. Chinese immigrants flooded into Mexico in the late 19th century, brought in as cheap labor on railroads, in mines, in new agribusiness plantations, and so on. They formed local Chinatowns, where typical foods of the poorer rural parts of coastal Guangdong Province were found: chop suey, chow mein, egg fuyong, noodle soups, white rice, soy sauce, pickled vegetables, preserved eggs and fish, Chinese sausage, and stir-fried dishes using small bits of boneless chicken or pork stir-fried with vegetables cut into small cubes. My generation remembers this well from California Chinatowns as well as from Chinatowns in Mexicali, Mexico City, and elsewhere. The Chinatown in Mexicali, now about gone, was a fascinating time machine when I was young; you could visit it and go back to the early 1900s. The Chinese had been brought in as laborers on the new fields created with large-scale irrigation, or had come as tradespeople and urban workers, and had remained fairly conservative in foods and other ways. Chinese food is now widespread in Mexico, and has slowly diversified, so one can now find Sichuan food and other non-Cantonese specialties in the bigger cities. One Chinese introduction that has become widely known in ordinary Mexican society are the little salted plums or apricots called saladitos in Mexican Spanish.
A bigger influence was a renewed burst of Arab food borrowing. This was due to the sudden tide of repression that swept the previously tolerant Turkish Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The empire was dying, and looking for ways to shore up power; also, German advisors counseled more firm and culturally homogenizing policies. The results included savage repression and local massacres of Christian Arabs and full-scale genocide of Armenians. Today we think of Arabs as Muslims, but in 1900 about 10% were Christian, with a huge concentration in Syria (then including Lebanon) and Palestine. Thousands of them fled to Latin America, especially if they were Catholic—whether Roman rite or Syrian rite. They introduced the foods of their home region. Possibly the most widely known now is the semita (Arabic simit), a ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds. It is widely sold in Mexico as a street vendor snack. Another food that caught on was kibi, ground meat and bulgur wheat combined in a pointed-ended meatball and fried. These have now become a “traditional Maya” food, having spread from the Merida city market area. A new boom in stuffed vegetables was also apparent. Baklava, raw onions, Greek-type salads, and other foods became known. Perhaps most interesting was the new form of tacos al pastor. Previously probably just made with meat hung up to roast over a fire (the carne al pastor of old-time cookbooks), this now became the Greek- and Turkish-style gyro: meat is sliced, marinated, and impaled on a vertical spit; bits are shaved off from the turning mass of meat and wrapped in a soft tortilla. Many cities had Arab restaurants. Merida used to have a range of incredibly wonderful Lebanese-style restaurants, ranging from very cheap to very expensive and luxurious, but I think only one is left now. Gary Nabhan, who is Lebanese-American, has been increasingly involved in documenting Arab foods in New World folk traditions (Nabhan 2014). Another huge influence came from the Arab immigrants starting supermarkets. The two major Mexican supermarket chains, Chedraui and San Francisco de Asís, were both started by Christian Arab immigrants from the old Turkish Empire. Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, is also descended from Arab immigrants.
Smaller groups of immigrants had more local influence. The extent to which Mexico is a melting pot, like the United States, is not always appreciated. Huge numbers of Irish and large numbers of Germans went to Mexico in the 19th century. The Irish left little trace, but the Germans included many Mennonites, from the German-Dutch border country, speaking a different language somewhere between German and Dutch. They set up farming colonies in remote areas, and often live by selling cheese, including a high-fat white cheese that has come to be known as menonita. Another fascinating group was made up of mascogos, descended from escaped African-American enslaved persons from Texas, who maintained a strikingly traditional lifestyle in remote parts of north Mexico well into the 20th century, combining Mexican rural foods with African and African-American foods like soski bread and tetapun, a Mexicanized spelling of ‘tater pone—sweet potato pie (del Moral and Siller 2000). More generally, southern US cooking influenced other parts of Mexico. Yucatan state, especially Merida, is fond of strictly southern-US-style pecan pies and cheese pies, called pie de nuez and pie de queso respectively; this leads to some puns, since pai is Maya for “skunk.”
As of 1900, and even 1950, village Mexico was still Indigenous as far as foodways went. Maize, beans, squash and chiles remained the staples. Tortillas, tamales, tacos, moles, and other pre—Colombian dishes were the norm. Pulque and tepache or tiswin (homemade beers) were the alcoholic drinks. All sorts of domestic and wild greens were eaten, under the old Nahuatl name of quelites (Nahuatl quilitl). Most of them are very healthful, and they have been studied in detail by ethnobotanists recently. An interesting case is verdolagas (purslane in English; Portulaca oleracea). It is a domesticated crop with selected varieties in central Mexico, an enthusiastically consumed weed in the rest of Mexico, and a mere weed—pulled out when seen—in the United States. Several other crops show this pattern of being appreciated in Mexico but ignored elsewhere. Mexican culture is much more appreciative of the plant world than are many others. A large percentage of our favorite domestic flowers were domesticated by Indigenous Mexicans, from marigolds and dahlias to zinnias and cosmos.
Many foodways are extremely health-promoting; many foods have medicinal values, and many herbal medicines have come from Mexico. The most dramatic finding was the birth control pill, which was developed from wild yams used in local medicine. The story of how the pill was developed, and how Mexico lost out on the financial bonanza, has been told in a superb book, Jungle Laboratories by Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2010). Since then, Mexico has been very careful about letting anyone patent its plant medicines—far too careful, from a humanitarian point of view, since it will not allow much research.
My own experiences with Mexican food have been largely in Maya lands of southeastern Mexico. I have done food ethnography in Yucatan and Quintana Roo, and fairly extensively in Tabasco, Campeche, and Chiapas. They are culturally very different indeed from the Nahuatl-dominated center. Tortillas are now basic, but they are a fairly recent introduction, probably becoming staple food within the last few centuries. Before that, the Maya ate tamales, pit-roasted meats, and large maize breads baked in the pit oven (pib). Also baked in the pit oven are whole pigs, cochinita pibil. Many soups and stews were made. They also ate manioc, sweet potatoes, and other root crops. They eat an enormous range of tropical fruits and vegetables. I piublished a long article on my work (Anderson 2010) and self-published a book of recipes (Anderson 2008, recipes available online at www.krazykioti.com under the title “Mayaland Cuisine”), and I am currently finishing up a book with food ethnographer Amber O’Connor on Maya foodways (O’Connor and Anderson 2017).
Maya food also includes a range of ceremonial dishes for the many ceremonies to worship and thank spirits and gods for rain, harvests, game, and other blessings. These would traditionally be based on the sacred maize, and include squash seed meal. Humans were made of maize by the gods, and then animated by blood that the gods shed to give life to the maze dough. The squash seed meal symbolizes the blood (at least to some traditional ritualists). Turkey was the traditional meat; chicken is now used. One set of stews made of turkey and maize (with vegtetables and chiles) is colored according to the four directions. North is considered to associated with white, and the stew is colored with white maize flour. South is yellow, colored with yellow maize and with a little achiote. East is red, colored with more achiote. West is black, and is colored with burned chiles. The chiles are toasted black and then ground. The center is green, the color of vegetation and life, symbolized on the traditional altars by green leaves rather than food. Homemade cigarettes of native tobacco are also offered to the deities. Many deities have been equated with Catholic saints, and in particular the all-important Maize God was early equated with Jesus.
Maya food was probably always influenced from central Mexico, but after the Spanish conquest there was more influence, including Nahuatl dishes like chilmole and pipian as well as tortillas. Later, the usual Caribbean and Arab influences found their way in.
The 20th and 21st centuries have seen the floodgates open, in so far as they were not open already. Most obvious has been the spectacular increase in Italian restaurants, especially since about 1960. Pizza joints, spaghetti houses, sub sandwich spots, and more upscale Italian restaurants are now as common in Mexico as in the US. The quality of food at these places is generally very low, I am sorry to say, but they provide cheap, quick, easy-to-eat meals for hurried working-class and middle-class people.
The United States has inevitably had an enormous influence, much of it highly negative from the point of view of health and food quality. Mass production of low-nutrient breads and snack foods came early, and has only increased over the years. Soft drinks are the most universal borrowing. Coca-cola® is so universal that the Mexican idiom for utter remoteness is “where even the Coca truck doesn’t go.” United States food companies have bought many Mexican ones. United States soybeans, maize, and other bulk crops flood the market. NAFTA ensured that protected, heavily subsidized US agribusiness could flood the Mexican markets; less subsidized, the Mexican producers cannot compete. This has ruined many dairy, maize, and bean farms. More recently, United States chains, from McDonald’s to Pizza Hut, have become universal; even US pseudo-Mexican-food chains like Taco Bell are widespread, especially in tourist areas.
Not all the influence is bad (though finding the exceptions takes searching). United States innovations in agricultural production have been largely beneficial to farmers, though with important recent problems. US investment, especially in agricultural research and development, has often been valuable and sometimes decisive. US culinary trends have spilled over into Mexico, leading to renewed interest in traditional, regional, and folk dishes and ingredients, and renewed interest in freshness and quality of ingredients. Returning migrants to el norte, as well as tourists and other visitors, have made sure that any new styles in New York or Los Angeles or other centers are quickly tried out in Mexico
Meanwhile, not only has Mexican food continued to be popular in the United States, but also Mexicans have become the backbone of the US restaurant industry. Fans of Anthony Bourdain will know that even in New York the kitchen staffs of fancy French restaurants are heavily immigrant Mexican (see e.g. Bourdain 2000). There is a Chinese type of noodle that is stretched by swinging it out like a skipping rope, which really develops the gluten and makes a very chewy noodle. The technique is incredibly difficult to master, but I have seen it done in Los Angeles by a Mexican cook. Zacatecas in particular is the source for a slarge percentage of Los Angeles’ greatest chefs.
A food event worth major attention is the development of high-yield varieties of wheat and other grains at CIMMYT, the international research center in Texcoco, now celebrating its 50th birthday. This center was set up by the Mexican government and Rockefeller Foundation, later getting help from various governments and foundations during the 1960s, when food shortages were common and world famine loomed. Crash programs of research at CIMMYT and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines produced high-yield, easy-to-grow grains that saved the world. Other centers dealing with other crops have arisen since. The resulting “Green Revolution” has had a bad reputation with scholars, because it tended to encourage overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, but that need not happen. Recent varieties use much less chemical input. About the only downside, really, is that the new wheats don’t taste as good as the old ones. We used to stock up on bolillos when we went to Mexico, back when I was young, because the wheat (and therefore the bolillos) was so much better tasting than wheat in the US. No longer. It would be easy to breed back the taste into modern wheats, but no one seems to care.
CIMMYT did not make dramatic breakthroughs with maize, for the very good reason that the Mexican people had bred such incredibly tough, diverse, and high-yielding maizes that there was little they could do. (I have this on direct authority from former CIMMYT personnel I have interviewed, notably Edgar Niederhouser, to whom thanks.) In any case, the great success of CIMMYT was the high-yield, short-straw wheats developed by Norman Borlaug and his team; he won the Nobel Prize for this. These wheats have the additional advantage of growing well in Mexico’s hot climate, unlike most high-yield wheats. They totally revolutionized wheat-raising not only in Mexico, but in India and Pakistan. Borlaug, in his Nobel Prize speech in 1970, warned that he and his colleagues had only bought the world some time to get population growth under control: “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” (Nobel Peace Prize speech, as quoted by Jeffrey D. Sachs, 2009, “Transgressing Planetary Boundaries,” Scientific American, Dec., p. 36.)
Alas, the world did not listen, and now is food-short again. Worse, agricultural research has been run down and often left to pesticide companies (Pardey 2016). The traditional, hardy, disease-resistant varieties and species of crops and animals are rapidly going extinct, though CIMMYT and other centers are desperately trying to save at least the seeds. Recent GMO crops and other highly disruptive influences are coming into Mexico. Mexico has banned GMO maize, but it has come via returning migrants to the US, and is now not uncommon. This presents a huge danger to traditional varieties. They could be genetically swamped by hybridization. Some hybrids of wild and local maize with GMO varieties have turned up, but fortunately farmers have become more careful, and this is no longer being reported (information from my colleagues and students, especially Norman Ellstrand). GMO’s also require more (and more, and more) chemical and mechanical inputs, thus getting increasingly out of range of local less affluent farmers, who are driven off the farm. The ironic result of these new, very inferior “improved” crops is rural decline and the abandonment of millions of acres that were fertile and productive until recently. Once abaindoned, they do not even return to wilderness. In fact, they often erode away, leaving a moonscape. Or they become cattle range, increasing erosion and biological degradation as well as rural inequality.
Fortunately, Mexican farmers are tough and independent people, and this process of rural decline has not progressed so far as it has in many areas of the world. Many parts of Mexico, including Quintana Roo where I do research, are strongholds of independent small farming by local families. These and other traditional Indigenous farmers are very skill-intensive, and we really need to document the skills and knowledge before they are lost to modernization.
Even so, Mexico’s curse since the Spanish introduced giant estates has been huge-scale farms, either cattle ranches or agribusinesses, with landless laborers reduced to starvation wages and horrible living conditions. This plantation-style agriculture came to Spain with the Romans. It was later imposed by the Spanish on the Moors. Then the Spanish from heavily Moorish parts of Spain used the same institutions to reduce the Indigenous population to serfdom. This large-scale, landlord-dominated type of agriculture is increasingly a curse to rural Mexico, and now many of the plantations are owned by giant international agribusiness firms. Dvera Saxton here can tell you more about it; she is one of the leading experts on this problem.
Today, unless there is a new effort comparable to CIMMYT’s, but dedicated to saving small farms and traditional varieties and to farming without deadly chemicals, you will probably all live to see mass starvation worldwide.
All too predictably, another main event of the 21st century has been the swamping of Mexico by fast-food chains and giant food corporations. Most are US-based, of course. Even the iconic Bimbo bakery company has been taken over.
The result of this is horribly predictable. Besides cutting the pleasure of eating, it has the more tangible and measurable effect of sending diabetes and other diet-related disease rates to unprecedented heights. Native Americans are particularly susceptible genetically to diabetes and metabolic syndrome (see e.g. SIGMA Type 2 Diabetes Consortium 2014), but anyone would succumb to the mix of bleached white flour, refined white sugar, and soybean oil that is now the standard diet in much of Mexico. Sugar in commercial soft drinks is now actually the main source of calories for Mexican children. Worldwide, diabetes rates are soaring, and 422 million people now have this condition (Sonnenburg and Bāckhed 2016).
Traditional diets are protective. In Mexico, nopales (cactus pads from Platyopuntia spp.) are known to reduce blood sugar and inflammation and alleviate diabetes, and buds of Cecropia spp. appear to, also. Many other folk remedies are used, with varying effectiveness. Certainly several Maya people I know have sent their diabetes into remission by using traditional remedies. Diet is the best cure, though. Refined carbohydrates, especially sugar, are notorious risk factotrs, but so is soybean oil, because the body quickly converts much of it into prostaglandins, which are inflammatory. Obesity also causes diabetes directly, through inflammatory mechanisms. It would be hard to imagine a better diet than the traditional Mexican one of whole grains, wild greens, seed atoles, nopales, avocados, fruit, beans, vegetables, and some lean meat and fish. Unfortunately, contemporary supply chains and food marketing venues are set up to maximize the marketing of comida chatarra—“junk food.” It would be perfectly easy to develop supply and marketing chains that would do the opposite; all it would take is going back to the old open markets, still flourishing in many areas. (Don’t miss the one in Oaxaca. It’s worth a special trip to the city.)
Mexican food may be especially complex and diverse in its origins, but it is fairly typical of food systems worldwide. No food system developed without massive borrowing from others. Borrowing goes on all the time. No food system remains static for more than a generation or two. Foods fall out of favor, come in from outside, get modified, get substituted. Fads rise and decline. The idea of stable, long-continued folkways is nonsense. Mexico has had some astonishingly long-running food traditions, notably the ever-wonderful tortilla and its frequent accompaniment of boiled beans and chile sauce. However, little else remains unchanged.
Even after 150 years of cultural anthropology, many people believe that “cultures” and “ethnicities” are steel-walled spheres that are completely independent of each other and do not affect each other except through aggression. No. Culture and ethnicity are abstract concepts that cover a realty of constantly shifting, changing practices. People constantly borrow, negotiate and renegotiate (Bourdieu 1977), and decide to change.
This puts in a rather ironic light the recent protests against “white men,” meaning Anglo-American yanquis, cooking Mexican food. I occuasionally have nightmares of trying to sort out the mess if we carried this principle to its logical conclusion. Only Nahuatl speakers would be allowed to make tortillas. Only Maya would be allowed to make chocolate. And so on….
There is a huge difference between normal cultural borrowing and actual offensive appropriation. If cultural appropriation is deliberately insulting (like stereotypic caricatures) or is outright ripoff for profit, it is as bad as any other insult or ripoff. If it is done more creditable reasons, it’s not only normal, it’s inevitable and necessary. Think if Norman Borlaug had refused to share those wheat varieties—as, in fact, modern seed companies do refuse to share theirs, insisting on purchase at very high profit rates. Instead, the wheat was made freely available worldwide, saving tens of millions of lives. Mexico today has thousands of species and varieties of useful plants and animals. They could revolutionize farming worldwide. We need to be able to get them into circulation and feed the world. But abuse by giant firms and outdated, poorly formulated patent laws make this impossible at the present time. Reform is seriously needed.
When Western medical researchers were looking for quinine in the forests of the Amazon Basin, they explained they needed it as a cure for malaria, a disease from the Old World. One local assistant commented: “God put the fever in Europe and the quinine in America in order to teadch us the solidarty that should prevail among all the peoples of the earth.” (Quoted Whitaker 1954:58). Whether God did it or it happened naturally, the point is made. We all need each other’s knowledge. We all need each other’s foods and foodways. We all need each other.
This article is based on a talk given at California State University-Fresno, Oct. 19, 2016. Thanks to Jen Banh and Dvera Saxton for initially seeking me out to give this talk. Thanks to my coworkers in Mexico, especially Felix Medina Tzuc and Aurora Dzib Xihum de Cen, as well as colleagues and students too numerous to mention.
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