Friday, March 09, 2007

More on Maya Plants

The birds in the cage above were in the back yard behind the Maya home we visited. The homes were small and seemed crowded along the street, but their back gardens were much larger than I expected. They had caged and free-range fowl, fruit trees, and other garden crops, as well as a children's play space with a hammock.

Following up my trip to Yucatan, I have been trying to learn more about ancient Maya crops and cuisine. Although Maya civilization relied mainly on corn, it's amazing how many still-familar foods they ate with it. Chocolate and vanilla are the most exciting legacy of the Maya -- I've already mentioned them and many other foods, such as both domestic and wild turkeys. They cooked meat on a grill above a fire, or in a pit dug in the ground.

At right is the ancient Maya corn god, symbol of the importance of their staff of life. This was one among the large number of gods in the Maya religious tradition. Of course they had no old world grains such as barley, millet, wheat, rice; and no Andean grains like quinoa either. If the corn crops failed -- as happened apparantly in the dry periods that drove the population from the earlier cities -- they had only a few famine greens to eat.

The Mayas used corn in a variety of ways. They made beverages, some fermented, some flavored with various spices. The thickness of corn beverages ranged from thin gruels to thickened pudding-like dishes. For the nobles, these may have resembled the chocolate and cornstarch pudding I made a few weeks ago. For common people who didn't get to eat chocolate, the flavoring was most often chile peppers. Like the Maya today, the ancients thought a meal was complete only if it included chiles.

The ancient Maya wrapped tamales in many kinds of leaves or corn husks. They filled them with beans or squash fillings. I find it interesting that avocado leaves are apparantly an intersting source of flavor when used this way. Tortillas, the most basic of foods, came in various shapes. Some had to be eaten fresh off the griddle. Others could be carried on the roads on the long walks of merchants and soldiers.

One of the few remaining documents in Maya script dates from the era just after Spanish conquest. At that time, the docment records, the Aztec overlords received Maya tribute of cotton, feathers, cocoa beans, and honey. The Maya ate not only the beans, but also the white and highly perishable substance that comes in the cocoa pod, as shown at the right. Cocoa requires a great deal of processing to extract the flavor and preserve the beans; then the beans must be crushed and heated properly to prepare a food or beverage. The Maya had methods for doing all of this.

Now, what about honey. From my reading, it seems that little is known about how they prepared and used honey, and that they don't seem to have sweetened their chocolate beverages with it. The native bees of the area are stingless -- I don't know much else about them. Our guide pointed out the ones on the tree in the photo, but I have my doubts about whether these are the species that can be used for honey. In any case, it was important enough to have been sent as tribute.

Finally a word on the two other tributes: feathers and cotton. Feathers --especially those from the colorful quetzel bird -- created the beautiful headdresses shown on the friezes in Mayan ruins that we saw. I'm unsure if the current fashions in embroidery that one sees on Maya women date from pre-Columbian times, but it's known that they cultivated cotton and gathered the fruit of the Kapok tree that produces another type of fiber. I'd love to know what the cotton garments of the Mayan warriors really looked like.

Additional references: Michael D. Coe, The Maya, New York, 2005. Sophie D. Coe, America's First Cuisines; Austin, Texas, 1994. Foster & Cordell, eds. Chiles to Chocolate, Tucson, Arizona, 1992.

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