Gastronomy during the Conquest: Up to 25 small portions of stews were served to the Mexica ruler Moctezuma II during the meal

21/04/2021

Up to 25 small portions of stews were served to the Mexica ruler Moctezuma II during the meal, including duck and edible herbs from the Basin of Mexico. Each of the dishes served to the tlatoani was placed on a clay tray with charcoal to keep them warm, as narrated in the Letters of Relation and in the True History of the Conquest of New Spain, written by Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, respectively.

Gastronomy is a valuable source of analysis as a cultural element of a society at a given time, to know the foods available, the quantity and way of producing them, the different ways of preparing them, the tools used to make the dishes, as well as the context in which they were served (common or ritual food). 

For example, during the Conquest in Mexico, the Mesoamerican diet consisted of tortillas, tamales, chili, mushrooms, edible herbs (such as quelites and spirulina), meats such as turkey, duck, and fish, and fruits such as mamey, pineapple, and soursop.

Typical Spanish foods brought to the New World were wheat, lard, and meats derived from cows, goats, sheep, and pigs. When both diets were mixed, preparations such as tostadas and totopos were created from fried tortillas, as well as tamales, which were originally made without fat, and when the Spaniards arrived, lard was added, which gave them a different flavor and texture, as well as the possibility of being reheated several times without losing their initial consistency.

The set of foods used and available during the 16th century was referred to in the different chronicles of the time. In the Canvas of Tlaxcala there are images showing how Tlaxcalan caciques fed the Spanish army after running out of food during their journey from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan; among the products mentioned are guajolotes, roasted corn, tortillas, and beans.

In turn, in Letters of Relation, which Hernán Cortés wrote to King Carlos I of Spain, as well as in the text by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the moment in which the conquistadors got to know the Tlatelolco market, a space full of varied products as a consequence of the tributary network to the city of Tenochtitlan, is recounted.

The Spaniards narrate that it was a specialized market, that is to say, the products were sold in certain sections: sale of earthenware, fruits, vegetables, meats, and food, the latter referring to the 'bread of the earth' (as tortillas and tamales were called) with stews inside, what would be today's tacos and quesadillas.

The Spaniards listed some of the products that were sold in Tlatelolco, such as quelites (which they call borage because of its similarity to edible herbs from Castile), capulines (which they call cherries of the earth), spirulina (which they refer to as cheese with algae from the lagoon) and tunas (which they say are fruits of the rainy season that they call tuna).

Meanwhile, Book XII of the Florentine Codex describes the Spanish conquest: Moctezuma's omens, the arrival of the peninsulars to the coasts of Veracruz; their dealings with Totonac indigenous groups and later with the Tlaxcalans who allied themselves with the conquering cause; the arrival at Tenochtitlan and their subsequent attack.

Within these narrations, there are several gastronomic references, among them anthropophagy, when the Totonacos (in Veracruz) offered to eat sacrificed individuals to the conquerors, as they thought they were divine beings and according to their beliefs the gods fed on the blood and energy of mankind; the indigenous group realized that they were men, as the Spaniards were shocked and horrified by the immolations.

Regarding Mesoamerican beverages, historical sources mention cacao or chocolate as the most important, prepared with water and corn dough; it was spiced with guajillo chili and perfumed with flowers such as vanilla, yoloxochitln, tonalxochitl, and eloxochitl. Simultaneously, fresh fruit or herb water, seasoned with chia, was the most common liquid.

For the Spaniards, their drink par excellence was wine made from trodden grapes, a fruit highly receptive to the smells of the environment. In this regard, aromas derived from one hundred percent Mesoamerican foods (such as cocoa, dried chiles, and vanilla) became the characteristics that red wine must have to obtain the bouquet of greatness, the highest quality distinction that can be given to them.

In 1524, Hernán Cortés -because he located endemic grapes- stipulated the ordinance that all Spaniards should plant grapevines. By 1531 there were already very productive vineyards, among them those of the conquistador himself in the valleys of Cuernavaca, which in a short time could supply the whole of New Spain, which would decimate the need to buy European wine. 

Faced with this, the Spanish Crown limited Cortés' production, with a series of land problems, and razed the remaining vineyards. However, the need for wines by the religious orders, caused some to cultivate vines in the orchards of the convents.

Nowadays, an excellent wine must have the distinctive bouquet of greatness, which it achieves, in the case of white wine, when it smells of pineapple, soursop, vanilla, butterfly flowers, fresh chile, or white sapote; for red wine, the aromas must be vanilla, cocoa or dried chiles; thus demonstrating how Mesoamerican essences reached a European product and transcended in it.

Source: INAH