It is a historical fact that the type of diet defines cultural patterns of the different communities in every society. It is also a fact that changes in the human diet have led to biological changes in the human being as he adapted to his environment; thus building the basis of an ideal and practical everyday life depending on the availability of environmental resources.
All the cultures of the world have based their development as societies upon the management and control of a specific resource, generally linked to the diet: on the coasts of Peru or the Baja California peninsula, for example, there are mounds known as “concheros” (midden), great piles of different kinds of mollusc shells accumulated over centuries of human exploitation; on the tropical floodplains in many parts of the world there are great extensions of fields that were built mainly (though not exclusively) for agricultural use, thus achieving a livelihood for thousands of people. Perhaps the best example of the mutual relationship between a crop and a society is the domestication and sowing of corn. While in symbiosis with humans, we have made our survival and the survival of this sacred Mesoamerican crop exclusively dependent upon cultivation; if nobody sows, harvest, cleans and threshes the corn, both entire communities and the corn itself would be doomed to disappear.
That’s right. Few people understand the long path that the food culture has travelled through the history of humankind, from its creation to its consolidation. Let’s take for example the Mesoamerican societies: it was not by chance that we discovered, domesticated and cultivated the amaranth, chia, spirulina, nopal cactus, tunas (prickly pears), corn, beans, squash, ants, maguey worm, maguey, native greens, mushrooms, and many other crops since there have always existed and still exists mutual benefit between crop and grower. That is how the Spanish Crown knew the potential of the newly discovered ecological resources, once the conquest of Mexico was consolidated. Proof of that were the literary efforts of the first monks, botanists, and European physicians who in turn, guided by masters and apprentices of the old Aztec physicians, sought to preserve the botanical, medical and even culinary wisdom of the recently conquered towns, through description and explanation of the different ecological resources found in the American continent and their uses, resources that had economical potential for the Spanish Crown.
To cite a couple of examples out of history, is the one of Francisco de Mendoza, son of then Viceroy of the New Spain Don Antonio de Mendoza, who in the mid XVI century ordered Aztec physicians and botanists to elaborate a botanical document as a present for Charles V in which the uses, both alone and combined, of about 227 medicinal plants (in combination with animals and minerals) were described, illustrated and explained. Many of these plants were later sent to Europe and were cultivated, for the benefit of the Spanish empire.
Back to the present, these and other codices and historical documents inspired my brother to build a project of ecological and community intervention, to recover useful Mesoamerican plants spread over the Iberian peninsula, so they can be included in the traditional economies of some regions and inhabitants of Andalusia.
You see, my brother knows that this diversity of texts with ecological information, were made to account for, understand and describe various native American plants that were taken and later domesticated in the old continent … Many of them are still used, and many others, that now dominate the Andalusian landscape, never were and perhaps never have been, but they could be, thus impacting positively on the formal and informal economies of various vulnerable groups of the Spain in crisis. It is a simple fact. This initiative still has community character, without any public or private help, but the existence of new gastronomic potentials represents a unique economic opportunity in that it allows empowerment of the diet of those involved, by adding new foods into their diet and their gastronomic culture.
I believe that we spend little time pondering the importance of the environment as it determines the kind of diet and, by this, the cultural identity of every society. It shouldn’t be just the job of the anthropologist or the sociologist, or the ethnologist or the ethnohistorian…The gastronomist, for example, also has equal responsibility to preserve all cultural identity since he works with the materials that were historically established in a Culture. If you want to destroy a Culture, begin by destroying its most fundamental habits…its eating habits. Exchange them with a junk diet that fattens the body and weakens the will of those who suffer it and robs them of their traditional ways of eating and once again, fool them with mirrors for gold*. 20 years ago, and with the implementation of the FTA between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada began a frontal war against the free use of native ancestral knowledge and the ecological resources arising from this knowledge. With the dismantling of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution began a private control of what was public before, the control over land. These unfortunate capitalist visions of an economy project led the recent media generations to believe that traditional is not only exotic, but alien; they couldn’t be more mistaken since, properly considered, the many Mesoamerican products belong to all the descendants of the native towns that discovered them and found a use for them.
The true heirs and transmitters of the so acclaimed Pre Hispanic gastronomy in Mexico (since in this world of conformity one finds tamales* in Amsterdam, green tomatoes and epazote* in Jaen, tlayudas* in Guatemala) are precisely the ones who have been excluded of every “Nation” project of this western Mexico. They are the humble men and women that transit every day of the week between flea markets and mercados* selling their homemade products, cruising in front of a National economic project that excludes and discriminates them. Why not make intercultural the relationship between classes through cultural culinary practices?? We would be preserving not only the production of native crops, but also the culture that develops around them…. pillars of Mexican identity.
Translation by Martha Leon de Schneider
* It is commonly believed that the Spaniards “stole” Mexican gold by exchanging it for small pieces of mirror (org. espejitos), since in the Mesoamerican culture a mirror was a sacred object. When referring to somebody being fooled, exchanging a valuable thing for a lesser object (as in Aladdin “new laps for old”) many Mexicans say “le cambiaron espejitos por oro”.
* I have left the original words: “tamales” and “tlayudas”, since these are native dishes that have no translation or would need a long description. “Epazote” is also known as “pigweed” in English, but I believe the author wanted to use the ethnic essence of this herb. “Mercados” has a meaning of its own in Mexico and it would lose in meaning by translating it to “market”.
Aquiles Chávez, is considered one of the best Mexican chefs. He currently runs a restaurtant specialized in Mexican cuisine, in Houston Texas. Aquiles also conducts two popular TV programmes, “The Touch of Achilles” and “Aquilisimo” which are broadcasted across Latin America. He is a proud Mexican and father of three children whom he considers his greatest achievement.
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