diversity of the natural environment in Mexico and highland Central
America has influenced the development of food and dietary patterns.
From the aridity of the great Sonoran Desert in the north, through
the temperate basins of the Valley of Anahuac, to the tropical forests
of the south, different climates and soils have conditioned what
and how people ate. Within the larger regions, hundreds of microregions
have had their own environmental and dietary characteristics, and
for millennia cultures have modified these environments to suit
their food needs. Three especially profound events that have influenced
environment and diet are the emergence of agriculture, the arrival
of Europeans (1519), and the technological and organizational changes
of the twentieth century.
the advent of agriculture, hunting, fishing, and gathering provided
the nutrients for Mexican diets. Most large mammals had become extinct
by about 7200 B.C., and four plants in particular mesquite,
nopal, maguey, and wild maize (teozinte) increasingly complemented
a diminishing amount of animal protein provided by fishing and hunting.
Even after the rise of sedentary societies dependent on agriculture,
food gathering continued to provide essential nutrients for most
indigenous groups. Densely populated communities in the central
highland valleys and seminomadic peoples in the arid north enriched
their food supply by collecting larvae, insects, and grubs, in addition
to small mammals and reptiles.
food production became more abundant, the quantity of collected
foods declined, and it was on the base of domesticated crops that
Mexican civilization rested. Maize, squash, beans, tomatoes, chillies,
amaranth, several cactus varieties, and many fruits (among them
avocado and guava) constituted the diet of the vast majority of
was the main food of the sedentary peoples of all of highland Middle
America. In the highlands of Guatemala one Quiché Maya word
for maize is kana, which means "our mother." Maize
was so important to some cultures that without it there was a cultural
sense of hunger, even if other foods were available (Herrera Tejada
1987: 2303). Maize is a particularly fertile and nutritious
plant, capable of providing abundant calories and nutrients. When
it is eaten with beans, another staple of the highland diet, the
lysine, isoleucine, and tryptophan deficiencies in maize are overcome,
and provides a pattern of amino acids similar to that of animal
protein. Moreover, the traditional preparation of maize, which involves
soaking the kernels in a lime (CaO) solution, releases niacin for
the consumer and provides significant amounts of calcium.
centrality to the diet can be seen in the diverse ways that it was
prepared. First eaten raw for its juices or toasted over a fire,
its preparation as a food gradually took many shapes and forms.
When ground finely and added to liquid, it formed the gruel known
variously as atole, pozole, or pinole. As a masa,
or dough, it was a food for the most versatile of cooks. In addition
to diverse tortillas (thin griddle cakes) and tamales (dumplings
steamed in corn husks), maize was cooked in myriad other shapes
with such names as peneques, pellizcadas, sopes, and tostadas.
In addition, it could be popcorn, a preparation now well known the
world over. Maize has served as a plate to support other foods (as
in a taco), as the base for complicated dishes (for example, an
enchilada), and as a napkin.
important food for the sedentary people of Mexico was squash, by
which we mean a number of plants belonging to the genus Cucurbita,
which includes pumpkins, squash, and zucchini, among others. All
were fully employed as food sources. Their stems constituted an
ingredient of a soup now called sopa de guias; the tasty
yellow flowers have also long been a part of soups, stews, and quesadillas,
and the fruit itself can be boiled. In recent times, brown sugar
and cinnamon have been added to form a thick syrup that transforms
the boiled fruit into calabaza en tacha, the classical dessert
for the Día de los Muertos. Pumpkin seeds are usually
left to dry in the sun and then are toasted and eaten with a dash
of salt. By weight, they have a higher content of isoleucine, leucine,
lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine
than maize, beans, amaranth, and even egg whites. These seeds are
also known as a medicine to get rid of tapeworms.
already mentioned, many wild foods, some of them peculiar to Mexicos
Central Valley region, were essential to the diet. Tecuitlatl
(Spirulina geitleri), an algae collected from the surface of
lakes in the valley, was particularly important as a source of protein,
vitamins, and minerals. According to sixteenth-century reports,
sufficient amounts of the algae were available to make it nutritionally
foods complemented the many plants that were the basis of the highland
diet. Along with domesticated rabbits, dogs, and turkeys, the Aztecs
enjoyed a variety of wild animals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians,
and insects. Many of these food sources have remained parts of nutritional
regimes into the twentieth century. Indeed, the turkey has subsequently
gained greater importance in the cuisine. Despite the availability
of wild fowl and then of domesticated ducks and chickens introduced
by the Spaniards, the turkey survived as a culturally important
food in Mexico. In contrast, Mexican hairless dogs (xoloitzcuintli)
are no longer eaten.
pre-Columbian diet of Middle America was also complex. The region
dominated by the Maya had as much diversity as the central highlands.
Along the coast and river estuaries, fish and shellfish provided
essential nutrients. Cultivated maize was supplemented by plants
such as chaya (Cnidoscolus chayamansa) and ramón
(Brosimum alicastrum). Ramón may have been an especially
significant foodstuff. Under cultivation, this tree produced large
quantities of edible seeds that had a protein content between 11.4
and 13.4 percent, substantially higher than local grains (Puleston
and Puleston 1979). Several root crops provided carbohydrates for
the diet: jícamas (Pachyrhizus erosus), camotes (Ipomoea
batatas), yuca (Manihot esculenta), and malanga (Xanthosoma
sp.) (Vargas 1984: 278).
quantity and quality of food in early diets remain open to interpretation.
Anthropological evidence provides insights into specific sites during
narrow time periods, but it does not help in the problem of generalizing
for the region. One approach to the question of diet has been to
analyze the carrying capacity of the land (population density versus
potential food resources) on the eve of the arrival of Europeans.
But even if it were possible to determine the precise carrying capacity
of any region, it would not necessarily reveal how much people ate.
Based on carrying capacity, estimates for the central region of
Mexico range from 1,400 to 2,629 calories per person per day (Ortiz
de Montellano 1990: 80).
line of investigation that has revealed new insights into the quality
of the diet has focused on Aztec cannibalism. The investigation
took its modern form when Michael Harner published a widely cited
article that emphasized protein deficiency as a reason for Aztec
cannibalism (Harner 1977). According to his reasoning, the dense
population of central Mexico, so dependent on a maize diet, lacked
adequate numbers of domesticated animals, and hunting and gathering
could not have supplied sufficient whole protein to compensate for
its lack in the diet. Climatic uncertainties and recurring droughts
in the late fifteenth century further contributed to deficiencies
in the Aztec food supply.
over such issues has led to different conclusions. One, which counters
the protein-deficiency argument, stresses that the Aztec diet delivered
plenty of good-quality protein. In addition, there is evidence showing
that Aztecs suffered from gout, a condition associated with too
much protein (Ortiz de Montellano 1990: 86, 121). Also useful in
the debate is recognition of the success of Mesoamerican agricultural
practices. Systems of terracing, irrigating, fertilizing, and the
justly famous chinampas (artificial islands that could yield
as many as four harvests a year), all combined to produce abundant
quantities of food. Intercropping, or the growing of several crops
together, was also beneficial. Intercropping was particularly useful
when beans were planted with maize because the nitrogen-fixing beans
helped increase maize yields (Ortiz de Montellano 1990: 947).
In addition, the traditional milpa practice of planting squash
and maize and letting edible wild herbs grow next to the latter
served both to deter pests and to provide additional foods before
the corn harvest, a time when there could have been scarcity.
preparation and consumption practices also contributed to good nutrition.
As mentioned, maize, when prepared as a masa and eaten with
beans and amaranth, delivers proteins comparable to those from animal
sources. Other culinary staples added to the nutritional well-being
of indigenous peoples as well. Chillies, full of vitamin C, were
commonplace in the Aztec diet. So were tomatoes, as significant
sources of minerals and vitamin C, and quelites (wild edible
herbs), rich in vitamin A.
from being a monotonous and boring series of dishes, Mexican cuisine
had great culinary variety, the result of an imaginative mixture
of ingredients and methods of preparing them. Sauces or moles were
common, and different combinations of chillies gave them different
flavors. One such sauce is pipián, a thick mixture
with a special texture made from ground squash seeds. A well-chosen
combination of sauces could add different flavors to vegetables
and meats while also providing more protein.
also knew how to ferment several vegetable products, the best known
of which is the sap of maguey (agave), used to produce the
mildly alcoholic beverage pulque. They also fermented several
maize products. Pozol was and is a popular preparation made
with a combination of several varieties of corn, whereby the masa
is made into small balls, which are covered with leaves and left
to ferment. The balls are then dissolved in water to make the pozol.
Mexican biologists and chemists (Cañas et al. 1993) have
found that this kind of fermentation enhances the amount of protein
the drink contains because of the growth of microorganisms.
arrival of the Spaniards in Middle America initiated dietary and
cultural changes that have continued until today. The precise extent
and pace of such changes remain subjects for research and interpretation,
but the broad outlines of the process can be addressed.
the Spaniards expected to replicate their traditional food patterns
in the New World, the extent to which they fulfilled this expectation
depended on local geographic and cultural forces and on policies
of trade and commerce. In the Caribbean, climate and culture hindered
the establishment of Spanish alimentary regimes. There, Spanish
culture survived through adaptation to local conditions and through
an elaborate system of trade that supplied the islands. Wheat, the
staple of the Spanish diet, was central to the trade.
Mexico and the highlands of Central America, soil and climatic conditions
encouraged the establishment of wheat production. The quantity and
flavor of wheat grown in the valleys of the central highlands and
in the broad plain of the Bajío became renowned throughout
Middle America. Production of wheat often exceeded demand, and in
the eighteenth century wheat exports fed soldiers and sailors garrisoned
in Havana. As wars increased in frequency, the demand for wheat
grew, and Mexico lost the Caribbean market to the United States,
not because of insufficient grain for export but because of the
higher cost of transporting Mexican grain.
was always a political issue in Mexico following the Conquest. In
the late 1520s in Mexico City, legislation mentioned the importance
of a supply of "white, clean, well-cooked and seasoned bread,
free of barley and sand" (Actas del Cabildo 18891916,
1: 1467). By the eighteenth century, when the capital city
may have been consuming over 40 million pounds of bread a year,
the problem of sufficient wheat bread had become considerably more
complex. The quantity and quality of bread available was the result
of the interaction among hacendados (wheat farmers), molineros
(millers), panaderos (bakers), pulperos (small shopkeepers),
and harried public officials who tried to regulate prices and quality
(Super 1982; García Acosta 1989).
grains, barley and rye in particular, were introduced to Mexico
but assumed only regional importance. After wheat, rice probably
had the most success of any of the imported grains among all ethnic
and social groups in Middle America. By the middle of the seventeenth
century, Panama was already producing enough of a surplus to support
a small export trade to Peru (Castillero-Calvo 1987: 428). In Mexico,
Indians came to depend on rice as a complement to or substitute
for maize. External influences on the preparation of rice continued
into the twentieth century. Morisqueta, rice prepared by
a technique supposedly introduced by the Japanese, became common
in the rural Mexican diet in the 1940s, and rice achieved even more
fame as the basis for a drink known as horchata, prepared
with rice flour, sugar, cinnamon, and ice (Horcasitas 1951: 1623).
before they planted these grains, Spaniards introduced new sources
of animal protein to Middle America. Pigs in particular were the
animals of conquest they were mobile, adaptable, and efficient
producers of fat and protein. Their rapid proliferation presaged
a century in which animal foods were more abundant than ever before
or since. Sheep multiplied almost as rapidly. By the end of the
sixteenth century, the Tlaxcala-Puebla region counted 418,000 head
of sheep; Zimatlán-Jilotepec 360,000; and the Mixteca Alta
238,000 (Dusenberry 1948; Miranda 1958; Matesanz 1965).
followed pigs and sheep, transforming dietary patterns wherever
they went. Enormous herds dominated the central and north-central
regions of Mexico, where the landed estate system began to take
shape in the late sixteenth century. Cattle were valuable for their
hides; meat was of secondary importance, as reflected by the very
low price of beef.
diets were widespread throughout Mexico and Middle America, extending
south to Panama. Indeed, meat may have been more abundant in the
Panamanian diet than in that of the Mexican (Castillero-Calvo 1987:
4324; Super 1988: 2832). The period of abundant meat
in the central areas, however, came to an end as the great herds
exhausted the grasslands. But the period itself left a dietary legacy
that continued through succeeding centuries. Fat from cattle had
become the substitute for the Europeans olive oil and butter.
Ignaz Pfefferkorn, a Jesuit very concerned with his stomach, summarized
the situation in the eighteenth century: "The art of butter-making
is as unfamiliar in Sonora as it is in all of America" (Pfefferkorn
and meat were the staples of the diet, providing the energy necessary
for the establishment of Spanish society in Mexico. Along with the
staples came scores of other foods, most of them basic to the Spanish
diet at home. Among the vegetables common in the sixteenth century
were onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, eggplants, and lentils; common
fruits included peaches, melons, figs, cherries, oranges, lemons,
limes, and grapefruit. Most of these foods had become regular items
in the diet by the end of the sixteenth century and remain so today.
and grapes did not follow this pattern. Both were essential to the
Spanish diet, but neither had lasting success in Mexico. After an
auspicious start, the cultivation of both was deliberately limited
to ensure that southern Spain had a captive export market. Much
olive oil and wine was still being imported at the end of the eighteenth
century, but their dietary importance had declined because of Spanish
mercantilist regulation and changing food preferences.
has a special place among the foods that came to the New World.
In Mexico, Hernando Cortés was the first landholder to devote
large areas to the cultivation of sugarcane. Production soon increased
and sugar was exported; at the same time it became widely appreciated
by the Mexican people. Its availability and price made it a good
substitute for the relatively more expensive honey and the syrup
fabricated by boiling the sap of the maguey plant. With a cheap
and readily available sweetener, Mexicans were soon experts in preparing
a wide variety of desserts and sweets that became characteristics
of the cuisine (Zolla 1988).
of the Creole Diet
blending of indigenous and European foods and food techniques began
immediately after the Conquest. The result was the emergence of
a comida novohispana, which in turn became the basis of Mexican
regional cuisines. Some elaborate dishes are elegant testimony to
the fusion of the two food traditions. Mole poblano is one
of the most highly regarded, with its chocolate base seasoned with
different types of chillies and nuts. To this dish Europeans contributed
foods and spices that they brought with them from the Old World:
onions, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fowl in the dish,
almost secondary to its flavor, was either turkey (native to Mexico)
or chicken (introduced into Mexico after the Conquest). Although
dishes such as mole and chiles en nogada (chillies stuffed
with minced meat and fruits, covered with a thick nut sauce) rightly
deserve notice, an even more basic fusion was taking place. As mentioned,
European livestock began providing the fat that native cuisine lacked,
and fat from pigs, and then from cattle, was quickly absorbed into
the Indian diet. Even dishes that might have seemed to be pure reflections
of pre-Hispanic dietary regimes came quickly to depend for flavor
on fat from Old World animals. Frijoles refritos, gorditas,
quesadillas, and other traditional Mexican dishes were not prepared
before the Conquest. The technique of frying itself was introduced
only in the sixteenth century. Indeed, most of the dishes so closely
associated with Mexican cuisine carnitas, tortas,
tacos, and tamales are prepared with animal fats,
cheeses, onions, garlic, and bread, all of which were introduced
diffusion of these foods among different indigenous groups has been
a matter of some discussion. Chickens, pigs, and goats quickly became
familiar parts of Indian economic activity and regular items in
the diet. When prices were low enough, meat from cattle and bread
from wheat were also eaten. But there are questions of how rapidly
and to what extent beef and wheat were integrated into the diet
of indigenous groups. A traditional interpretation is that there
was little fusion of the different food traditions and that the
"Indians continued their almost exclusively vegetarian diet:
corn in liquid and solid form, beans, vegetables and chile; for
bread, meat, and other foods were far too expensive for them"
(Gamio 1926: 116). Recent research on the colonial period, however,
suggests that fusion was much more extensive and that Native American
diets did include wheat and meat, foods traditionally associated
with a European diet (Castillero-Calvo 1987; Super 1988).
development of a new diet did not necessarily require the addition
of new foods. For example, pulque, already mentioned as the
fermented juice of the maguey plant, emerged as the most widely
consumed beverage of the central highlands because traditions that
had limited its intake before the Conquest weakened in the sixteenth
century. The resulting widespread consumption continued into the
twentieth century. Although pulque provided needed carbohydrates,
minerals, and vitamins to the diet, it also contributed to the image
of widespread alcohol abuse among Indians and mestizos in Mexico.
production of this beverage spread with Spanish society and the
emergence of the hacienda. The technology of pulque production
remained essentially the same as before the Conquest, but new storage
vessels of leather and wood made it possible to produce larger amounts
of pulque more easily. Drinks from sugarcane (many different
types of aguardiente were popular by the eighteenth century)
were also accepted by indigenous cultures but did not replace pulque
as a daily beverage. Of all the foods and beverages of indigenous
cultures in Mexico, pulque remained the most politicized,
sparking medical, moral, and economic controversy into the twentieth
century (Calderón Narváez 1968; Leal, Rountee, and
Martini 1978; Corcuera de Mancera 1990).
is impossible to reduce the complex changes that took place in the
diet during the colonial period to a series of statistics measuring
calories and other nutrients. Nevertheless, the weight of the evidence
suggests that the collision of cultures in the sixteenth century
resulted in an initial improvement in nutrition among the poorer
classes. The gains made were difficult to sustain as the colonial
period drew to a close, and by the end of the eighteenth century
the nutritional status of the individual was probably lower than
it had been two centuries earlier (Borah 197989; Castillero-Calvo
1987; Super 1988). It is also important to note that until the late
nineteenth century, Mexican regionalism was very pronounced, which
encouraged the continued independent evolution of local cuisines.
of food production and distribution were disrupted by the struggle
for independence and subsequent economic dislocations. But independence
did not lead to the development of new alimentary regimes. Despite
new influences affecting food preparation techniques for the wealthy
(French food fashions, for example), most Mexicans continued to
rely on diets that had changed very little from the colonial period.
emergence of new agricultural and land-tenure patterns in the second
half of the century may have reduced dietary quantity, but it is
difficult to generalize for the entire region. Some of the prices
for basic foods maize, beans, rice, and chillies did
increase sharply, especially during the final years of the nineteenth
century and the first few years of the twentieth. But such prices
usually reflected trends in central Mexico that were not representative
of the country as a whole. During the nineteenth century, regional
variation continued to characterize food availability, prices, and
consumption in rural Mexico.
during earlier periods, the complex labor relationships of the haciendas
influenced the availability of food. These in turn had regional
variations. For example, in the Puebla-Tlaxcala region of central
Mexico, although the peones alquilados (daily, weekly, or
seasonal laborers) might have had high wages, they seldom received
food rations. In contrast, the peones acasillados who lived
on the haciendas often received fixed amounts of food and had the
right to work a small amount of land, called a pegujal, for
their own benefit. An interesting dimension of rural labor arrangements
was the obligation of the servicio de tezquiz, whereby daughters
and wives of rural workers prepared atole and tortillas for
hacienda personnel. This, as with fieldwork, was paid for both in
specie and in kind. In the latter case, the women received up to
one almud (4.625 liters) of maize for performing this service
(Coatsworth 1976; Cross 1978; Borah 197989; Nickel 1982: 12548).
traditional view is that a marked decline in nutrition occurred
in the late nineteenth century. There is, however, some evidence
to counter this view, which is based on wage and price data that
can be misleading when local labor relationships are not understood.
In many areas of rural Mexico, peasants continued to hold on to
their land, producing for subsistence and then for the market. Workers
who were entirely dependent on their employers often had access
to rations that provided for their own and their families
basic caloric needs. Salaries, although low, were sufficient
to buy some meat and nonessential foods. This is not to suggest
that diets were good, or perhaps even adequate. But they were, it
seems, not as bad as traditionally described.
the struggle for independence that began the nineteenth century,
the Mexican Revolution (191017) created disruptions in the
production and distribution of food. As severe as these were in
some areas, they were essentially transitory and had little lasting
impact on food and diet.
important were two gradual processes that would shape the history
of food in the twentieth century. First was the continuing commercialization
of food production, a process with origins in the advent of sixteenth-century
European agricultural practices. It gained momentum during the colonial
period and then surged under the rule of Porfirio Díaz (18761911)
in the late nineteenth century as more and more land was devoted
to agricultural products for an export market, particularly cattle,
sugar, coffee, and two nonfood crops cotton and henequen.
latest step in this process has been the increase in the production
of fruits, vegetables, and meats for the U.S. market, beginning
in the 1960s. Related to this was the leap in the production of
sorghum (used for cattle feed), which has become a leading crop
in Mexico (Barkin 1987: 281). Similar to soya in Brazil, sorghum
emerged to satisfy the demands of the export market rather than
internal needs. One consequence has been increasing pressure on
resources traditionally used to produce foods for local consumption.
second process has been the industrialization of food production
and distribution. The molino de nixtamal, a mill for maize
flour, has had particularly far-reaching impact. Making tortillas
by hand is a time-consuming process, once performed daily by homemakers,
but with the introduction of the molinos in the early years
of the twentieth century, and then of new methods of packaging and
distributing tortillas, the traditional social roles of women changed.
Freed from a daily four to six hours of labor with tortillas, women
have had to adjust to new social and economic relationships. Cultural
attitudes toward maize, still a sacred food among some highland
Guatemala peoples, also changed as maize production was subjected
to mechanization (Keremitis 1983; Herrera Tejada 1987; Vargas 1987).
establishment of the molino de nixtamal is only one example
of the growing consolidation of the processing and distribution
of food. As in other societies experiencing rapid urbanization and
industrialization, Mexico has seen its food systems undergo a profound
alteration. National and transnational corporations influence everything
about food from price to fashion, with the result that traditional
foods and methods of preparation are giving way to national and
global food processing and distribution systems. Such changes have
also accentuated the loss of Mexican self-sufficiency in food production
(Barkin 1987; Vargas 1987).
of these changes have meant a new era in the history of Middle American
food habits. Unfortunately, the new era has not yet shown the capacity
to eliminate the nutritional problems that still plague many people,
especially the poor in rural areas. Although malnutrition seldom
reaches the level of starvation, high rates of infant mortality,
low birth weights, and chronic illness and development problems
afflict the poor. Average caloric intakes, some 2,600 per person
per day in Mexico in the 1970s, obscure the regional inequalities
in diet. People in rural zones of the south might consume less than
2,000 calories an intake comparable to the poor of India,
Kenya, or Vietnam (Pineda Gómez 1982: 1047).
Mexican government has created several programs to counter problems
of malnutrition and the negative effects of the globalization of
food production and distribution. It first directed its efforts
toward the creation of a national marketing system, the Compañía
de Subsistencias Populares (CONASUPO), whose mission has been
to regulate the price and availability of food by intervening in
national and international markets. A much heralded governmental
effort was the Sistema Alimentario Mexicano (SAM), a program
launched in 1980. SAM aimed to improve national nutritional well-being
by focusing resources on the increased production and distribution
of domestic foods. This was accomplished by providing technology,
credit, and price supports to small producers, thereby encouraging
them to contribute more effectively to satisfying national nutritional
needs. On the heels of SAM came the Programa Nacional de Alimentación
(PRONAL), an even more comprehensive effort that focused on creating
an integrated national food system. New governmental policies that
have favored free enterprise and international commerce have hindered
public programs intended to increase food availability to the poor.
solution to the problem of malnutrition is a reliance on the natural
diversity and traditional foods of a region. The significance of
traditional foods, such as quelites (cultivated and wild
herbs), for example, has been increasingly recognized as a result
of a classic 1946 study of the very poor Otomi Indians of the Mezquital
valley. Despite the almost total absence of foods common to middle-class
urban diets, especially meat, wheat bread, dairy products, and processed
foods, the Otomi, who consumed quelites, showed few signs
of malnutrition (Anderson et al. 1946).
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