The next time you pick up a pack of corn tortillas, take a second to appreciate the ease of buying such a delicious staple. Centuries of work went into that rather simple-looking product derived from the development and cultivation of corn around 9,000 years ago. Farmers from Mesoamerica (roughly the region that is now Central Mexico down to northern Costa Rica) spent eras selectively breeding wild grass for its large kernels until around 1,500 B.C., when the cluster of kernels began to resemble the large corncobs we know and love today. (We can also thank them for inventing the nixtamalization process that makes corn more nutritious and easier to grind.)
Corn quickly became a pivotal crop for many of the pre-Columbian civilizations, such as the Aztecs and Mayans, but it’s just one of myriad Mesoamerican foods we’re lucky to still enjoy today—in both modern Mexican cuisine and on our beloved Tex-Mex plates. Chef Iliana de la Vega of Rainey Street District’s El Naranjo specializes in authentic Mexican food, and incorporates ancient flavors into her dishes daily. She explains that certain key crops became staples in Mesoamerica for more than just their flavor. “An essential part of the Mexican diet is something we call la milpa,” she says. “The translation literally would be ‘the cornfield.’ But it’s important not only because you grow corn there, but because in la milpa, you grow all the essential things that are a part of the basic Mexican diet…corn, chiles, tomatoes, squash and avocados all grow around each other.”
The concept of la milpa is best understood as the symbiosis that was discovered between vastly different plants as they grew alongside one another. To grow well, corn needs high levels of nitrogen in the soil, and bean plants happen to be natural providers of nitrogen. Squash also contributed to this crop collaboration—it was typically grown in the rows between the corn, with its large leaves covering the ground and keeping out weeds. Over time, it was noticed and recorded that these staples kept people healthy, and that the plants complemented each other nutritionally.
For the Mesoamericans, though, la milpa went well beyond the planting of particular crops. Culturally, it came to represent the relationships between farmers and their land and between the land and the community. For example, one of the ancient Mayan creation stories—the Popol Vuh—tells how the first humans were successfully made out of maize (corn) picked from a milpa field. “Thus was found the food that would become the flesh of the newly framed and shaped people,” the story reads. “Water was their blood…their flesh was merely yellow ears of maize and white ears of maize.”
Once the Spanish arrived in 1519 to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (located in what is now Mexico City), crops in la milpa became of great interest to them. Foods that the Aztecs identified in their native language of Nahuatl as ahuacamolli, xocolatl, chilli and tomatl would, centuries later, become familiar to us as guacamole, chocolate, chile and tomato. Food historian Rachel Laudan, author of “Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History,” explains that the Spanish were in search of more than just gold when they came to the New World. They were looking for what she calls “green gold.” “They wanted any kind of plant that could be valuable—mainly for food but also for medicines, for making clothes, all kinds of things,” Laudan says. “What’s really interesting is that although these ingredients—particularly corn and chocolate—have spread around the world, they’re not used in the way that they are in Mexico. The plants went, but not the techniques.”
These days, many Mesoamerican foods are heavily associated with other cultures because of this culinary conquest by the Spanish. Green gold is reflected in Italy’s love of tomatoes, the French’s adoration of vanilla and the global obsession with chocolate. La milpa provided the world with flavors we now can’t imagine living without.
As Texans, we’re lucky to have our particular geographic placement. Our beloved queso was never a part of the Mesoamerican diet (they didn’t have herd animals to produce milk regularly) and our tacos often contain more meat than was ever consumed daily by Aztecs or Mayans, but we’re blessed to be able to enjoy many of the same foods from la milpa that were eaten on this continent thousands of years ago. “Knowing the history of your food not only gives you respect for different cultures,” notes Chef de la Vega, “but it gives you respect for people that are different from you, as well.”
By Darby Kendall