By Brooke Grazer for The Eye Magazine
December is the month that many of us associate with exchanging gifts, so I thought it would be a good time to remember some of the scrumptious gifts that Mexico has given the world. I’ve wrapped each gift in some interesting bits of history and trivia.
This may be the world’s oldest snack. Next time you go to the movies, thank Mexico when you order a tub of popcorn, called palomitas in Mexico. The people of Mexico domesticated corn some 10,000 years ago, but even before that, a hard variety of corn called teosinte grew wild. These kernels were too hard to eat or to grind into flour but could be popped; some form of popcorn existed a millennium before the domesticated corn used for tortillas came into being.
Archaeologists have found evidence of avocados growing in central Mexico 12,000 years ago. Due to the shape of the fruit, the Aztecs called them ahuacatl from the word huacatl, meaning “testicle,” and they were thought to be an aphrodisiac, possibly due to this shape.
Ancient Mayans chewed a sticky substance from the Manilkara sapota, or the chicle tree. Later, when the Aztecs adopted the practice, they established firm social rules surrounding its use. Only children and single women could chew it publicly, while men and married women could only chew it in private. It was used to stave off hunger and to freshen their breath. In the 1850s, a New Yorker named Thomas Adams was working as secretary to General Antonio de López de Santa Anna, the exiled former president of Mexico. Santa Anna was a chewer of chicle, which Adams had imported as a possible substitute for rubber. When it proved unsuccessful, Adams adapted it as the base for chewing gum and the popular brand Chiclets was born.
Chili peppers may have been the world’s first introduction to fusion cuisine. When Columbus discovered America, he found chili peppers growing on the Caribbean islands. However, the word chili comes from the Aztec language. and this plant was originally domesticated around 5000 BCE in the Tehuacán Valley, which lies between the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca. The word pepper was combined with the name chili, because of the hot taste. Columbus was seeking a similar plant; black pepper corns were known in Europe as “Black Gold” and before long chili peppers were grown around the world.
If you are on a budget, these could be your best friends. One cup of cooked beans equals 14 grams of protein, the same as 2 ounces of lean meat, which only provides 9-13 grams of fiber. While a few varieties are from Africa or the Middle East, most beans originated in Mexico, with evidence of their cultivation dating back seven thousand years. Some 200 different varieties of Mexican beans have been identified, but the most commonly known are kidney, pinto, black, red, and white beans.
Some people associate this exotic fruit with Asia, but it originated in southern Mexico and Central and South America. Spanish explorers spread its cultivation; papaya was the first crop to be genetically modified for human consumption. Aside from its mildly sweet flavor and soft buttery texture, this tropical fruit contains enzymes that aid in digestion and protect tissues that line the digestive tract. And without papaya, New York City would have been bereft of its beloved combo, papaya juice and hot dogs. Purveyed by Papaya King, Gray’s Papaya, Papaya Heaven, Papaya Paradise, Papaya Place, Papaya Circle, Papaya World, Frank’s Papaya, etc., etc., from the 1950s on (Papaya King lays claim to another two decades, 1932), the combo had its heyday in the 70s. No less than Julia Child declared the hot dog served at Papaya King the best in New York, better even than Nathan’s Original! After many ups and downs and franchise failures hither and yon, you can still get a Papaya King drink and a dog on St. Marks Place downtown and on East 86 Street (the original) uptown in the Manhattan.
Some say that tomatoes grew wild in the Andes, but the Aztecs had domesticated and cultivated them by 500 BC. Cortez brought them to Spain and tomatoes became popular in southern Europe soon after the conquest. In some parts of Europe, however, they were considered poisonous. This was because acidity from tomatoes caused the lead in pewter plates and flatware to leach into food. Over time, lead poisoning is fatal. It was not until the time of the American civil war that tomatoes became a common part of our diet. Thank goodness they did, because without tomatoes from Mexico, there would be no pizza today!
Compared to some spirits, tequila is a fairly modern development. The Aztecs fermented the juice of the agave cactus into a drink called pulque somewhere around 300 BC, but the Spaniards found it a bit rough for their tastes. Using the same plant, they distilled something called Vino de Mezcal. Later, copper stills were introduced and they enjoyed an even th more refined product. In the 17 century, the town of Tequila in Jalisco developed a reputation for the fine quality of mezcal they produced from a variety of blue agave. Soon people began referring to all distilled agave spirits as tequila. However, in 1902, an official distinction was made and only blue agave spirits from this region in Jalisco could be labeled “tequila.” All tequilas are technically mezcals, but not all mezcals can be called tequila. (See many articles in The Eye by Alvin Starkman on the making and enjoying of mezcal.)
This delicious flavoring is from the pod of an exotic orchid of the genus Vanilla. It grew only in what is now the state of Veracruz and the Totonacs were the first to cultivate it. The flavor quickly became popular in Europe, but until the 1840s, Mexico had the vanilla market cornered. This was because the orchid needed to be pollinated by hummingbirds or bees specific to the region. Then a French entrepreneur discovered how to pollinate the plants by hand, and production of vanilla expanded to other countries. Like saffron, vanilla is a labor-intensive product, making it an expensive flavoring regardless of where it is produced. However, many experts agree that Mexican vanilla is smoother, darker, and richer, with more floral notes. So, if you are going to spend the money – wouldn’t you want the best?
Cacao trees grew wild in Mexico for nearly 10,000 years, until the Olmec people began cultivating them. Mayan glyphs suggest that a beverage made with fermented cacao pods was reserved for only the most elite members of society. The dried beans from the cacao pods were so prized that the Mayans used them as currency to trade with the Aztecs. The Aztecs mixed them with chilis to make a bitter drink that no one today would recognize. Our English word “chocolate” derives from the Aztec word chocolātl, or xocoátl, but it was not until 1590 that cacao began to gain popularity. This was when Oaxacan nuns had the brilliant idea of sweetening the beverage. From that simple innovation, chocolate spread across Europe becoming the world’s favorite flavor.
Thank you, Mexico!