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America's First Cuisines

America's First Cuisines

A detailed description of the cuisines of the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca.

March 1994
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288 pages | 6 X 9 | 2 maps, 13 line drawings |

After long weeks of boring, perhaps spoiled sea rations, one of the first things Spaniards sought in the New World was undoubtedly fresh food. Probably they found the local cuisine strange at first, but soon they were sending American plants and animals around the world, eventually enriching the cuisine of many cultures.

Drawing on original accounts by Europeans and native Americans, this pioneering work offers the first detailed description of the cuisines of the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca. Sophie Coe begins with the basic foodstuffs, including maize, potatoes, beans, peanuts, squash, avocados, tomatoes, chocolate, and chiles, and explores their early history and domestication. She then describes how these foods were prepared, served, and preserved, giving many insights into the cultural and ritual practices that surrounded eating in these cultures. Coe also points out the similarities and differences among the three cuisines and compares them to Spanish cooking of the period, which, as she usefully reminds us, would seem as foreign to our tastes as the American foods seemed to theirs. Written in easily digested prose, America's First Cuisines will appeal to food enthusiasts as well as scholars.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. Domestication
  • 2. New World Staples
  • 3. New World Produce
  • 4. The Aztecs
  • 5. Aztec Ingredients
  • 6. Aztec Cooks and Menus
  • 7. The Maya and the Explorers
  • 8. Diego de Landa
  • 9. Solid Maya Breadstuffs
  • 10. Maya Flesh Food
  • 11. Maya Produce
  • 12. The Inca: Animal and Mineral
  • 13. The Inca: Vegetable
  • 14. The Inca
  • 15. The Inca and the Europeans
  • 16. The Occupation
  • 17. A Final Banquet
  • 18. Finale
  • Bibliography
  • Index

The late Sophie D. Coe held a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University. She researched and wrote extensively on the cuisines of native Latin America.


This is a book written to celebrate the contribution made by the original inhabitants of the New World, the American Indians, Native Americans, or whatever you wish to call them, to the food of the contemporary world. Their gifts, like this book, can be divided into two parts. The first part of the book deals with the contributions of the New World, the ingredients which the original inhabitants gathered, domesticated, and ate for many millennia before Europeans ever laid eyes on them. This section touches the disciplines of botany and zoology, as it explores the wild flora and fauna from which New World plants and animals were selected for the ultimate benefit of all humanity. There are brief "biographies" of some of the more important New World crop plants, sketching, insofar as is known, the history of their adoption by small groups of ancient gatherers, then tracing their expansion over climatically suitable areas of this continent and their eventual conquest of the entire globe.

The second portion of the American contribution constitutes the second half of the book. This is concerned with the uses to which these ingredients were put, both the major ones that got the biographies in the first part and the vast gamut of minor actors that had only more local distinction. In other words, I move from the ingredients to the menus in which they were employed. Where data are available, I try to expand the scope of investigation to cover the whole constellation of beliefs, manners, and customs with which all human beings surround their nourishment.

To do this I must use the contemporary accounts of the first meetings of the Europeans with the three high cultures of aboriginal America, the Aztec, the Maya, and the Inca, and try to winnow from them something about the food these people ate. The reason for the choice of these three is simple: that is where the information is. For these people there are available descriptions of food preparation techniques, methods of preservation, and even the ever-elusive recipes, as well as the manner of serving the food and the etiquette of eating it. Unfortunately, and probably due in large part to the absence of female writers, this evidence can also be sparse and scattered, although there were luckily some male writers who were sufficiently concerned with food matters to record them for us.

As a conclusion I give a similar description of the food of the Spaniards in the New World, during the first few decades following the conquests. That earliest infancy of the hybrid cuisine of the modern world, with its attendant loss and tragedy as well as victory and profit, will stand for the mixture of good and evil that the discovery of the New World brought to the world.

The accusation is often made that the American Indian did not really make much of a contribution as far as the domestication of animals and plants went. The animals—the dog, llama, alpaca, turkey, muscovy duck, guinea pig, and cochineal insect—are not considered important enough to merit more than a sneer in passing. As for the plants, it is implied that American Indians loafed in their hammocks, with tropical produce effortlessly dropping into their laps, and it was up to the Europeans to take the crops they found growing, presumably spontaneously, and make something truly important and edible out of them. The fact that many millennia of patient observations, considered economic decisions, and hard physical work were necessary to assemble the New World crop inventory was brushed aside.

Domestication is no quick and simple matter. Rather, it is a lengthy and continuous process, beginning with the first forager who burned off a stretch of vegetation, or deliberately left some scraps of roots in the soil, so that the plant that was being gathered could survive and produce more foodstuffs to be gathered, and ending with intensive factory farming, where the plant cannot survive without the farmer, and the farmer cannot live without the plant. Actual domestication, that is to say the propagation and maintenance of genetically different plants and animals, many of which could not survive or reproduce in the wild, comes fairly late in the sequence and leads to the practice of agriculture, that is to say the cultivation and tending of plants and animals that are now genetically different from their wild ancestors. The process is definitely a reversible one. Many a wild plant was cultivated and may have been well on the way to domestication, only to slip back into the wild as tastes changed or newer and better foods appeared. Who now remembers foxtail millet (Setaria geniculata), an early foodstuff important in northeastern Mexico (Callen 1967), which was discarded around 2200 B.C. when maize was introduced, or sumpweed (Iva annua), a staple in the southeastern United States, which became obsolete at roughly the same time and for the same reason (Heiser 1985)?

The reader may well ask at this point how one can tell a domesticated plant or animal from a wild one. Dictionary definitions telling us that a domesticated plant or animal is one which has its genetic development under the control of human beings, or the mirror-image definition which has the human beings' genetic development under the control of the animal or plant, are no help when the archaeologist or food specialist is confronted with a handful of charred seeds, a few splinters of bone, or a couple of squash peduncles.

Domesticated plant and animal species generally exhibit more visible variation than wild ones, although the wild ones obviously possess hidden genetic reserves that make the varieties of their cultivated descendants possible. Consider the endless named sorts of apples pictured in nineteenth-century pomologies, or picture in your mind's eye a tiny shaggy brown Highland cow next to a gigantic sleek grey Zebu—yet wild ancestral apples and ancestral cows were probably all pretty much alike to the eye.

This is not to say that noticeable differences do not occur within wild species. They do, and they were exploited by the American Indians as they were by all early foragers. In fact, this may well have led to some of the first steps toward domestication, when a particularly favored tree, let us say an oak that produced acorns that were less bitter than others of the same species, would be tended by the local gatherers and its acorns transported farther, perhaps to sprout, beyond the places that they would ordinarily have had a chance to fall and take root. Modern berry pickers exercise the same sort of freedom of choice when they pick the bushes producing the fat juicy berries and avoid the ones producing lean seedy fruit.

Another way of distinguishing the domesticated from the wild is to notice if the portions of the organism that are of the greatest interest to the domesticators, in our case the portions that are edible, have increased in size and quantity. One grain of modern domesticated maize contains more nourishment than the entire cigarette-butt-sized ear of the earliest domesticated maize. Domesticated plants are also at least partially denuded of their physical defenses against the enemies which attack them in the wild and prevent them from producing further generations. Such defenses include bristles, irritating hairs, thorns, spines, and impermeable shells, all of which are undesirable for plants which are going to be growing for the benefit of humans.

There are also the chemical defenses with which plants are armed. Put bluntly, many wild plants taste bad if they do not make the eaters sick or kill them. Domestication is one factor that makes food taste better, although there are others, as we shall see. Let no one imagine that such matters are of no interest to non-Europeans, even if they are living on the subsistence level. Our contemporaries express amazement that the Aymara of Peru and Bolivia can discriminate among their hundreds of kinds of potatoes by taste, while they take the gustatory feats of European wine tasters and tea samplers for granted. Let us hope that this attitude is due to sheer thoughtlessness, not to the sort of racism that many of the early authors on the New World were guilty of.

That all human beings are interested in the taste of their food may be confirmed by looking into those absolutely invaluable sources for early culinary history, the dictionaries compiled by the first travelers and missionaries. Priests, who were instructed to have as little to do with the female sex as possible, and secular writers, who would not otherwise pay the least attention to matters culinary, would gladly stoop to including food terminology, and sometimes even rudimentary recipes, in the quest for a lengthy and therefore impressive compilation. Not one of the dictionaries lacks an extensive vocabulary having to do with food and taste, words meaning savory, well-cooked, and tasty and their opposites like insipid, tasteless, and burned.

To return to the consequences of domestication: Domesticated animals and plants quite often lose the capacity to reproduce without human assistance. Some cultivated plants produce no seeds at all, like the banana (Musa spp.), which is an Old World domesticate, but one that spread so rapidly over the tropical New World that some of even the earliest chroniclers mistook it for a native. Bananas are propagated by planting the suckers that form at the base of the mother stalk, and these suckers must have been among the earliest cargoes routed to the New World. Manioc (Manihot esculenta) is a New World domesticate that has no seeds and must be multiplied by means of stem cuttings. Other plants can reproduce both sexually, that is to say by seed, and vegetatively, that is to say by planting portions of the plant, as is the case with many potatoes. Plants of this nature are a blessing to observant gardeners, giving them a chance to produce plants identical to their predecessors by vegetative reproduction or to get new varieties by using the seeds. These new varieties may or may not be superior to the parents, but they will certainly be different from them. Still other plants, as a consequence of domestication, lose their capacity to distribute their seeds efficiently, because efficient seed distribution often means easily shattering stems and pods or even explosive seed containers. Obviously this is a trait any domesticator seeks to eliminate—the last thing a person intent on gathering seeds wants is for the plants bearing them to have the capacity to shoot them all over the landscape. The husk of the modern ear of maize is an example of this. It is an effective guardian of the calories it contains, but if left to its own devices maize would soon die out, because that same husk prevents the seed from dispersal and germination.

The most modern and sophisticated domesticated plant varieties are extremely uniform, as uniformity is desirable when planting, cultivating, and harvesting by machine. A modern field crop should ripen all at once, so that one pass of the harvester can do the job. For nonindustrial farming conditions a crop that ripens gradually is preferable, because it spreads the labor of harvest, transport, and preparation for storage over a period of time, rather than having it come in an overwhelming avalanche. A crop that germinates, grows, and ripens unevenly is also a form of insurance, guaranteeing that even if some seedlings or fruit are destroyed by drought or rain or predators, others will survive to be harvested.

But it is not all that simple. Some of the toxic compounds and protective mechanisms that it would seem should be immediately gotten rid of defend the domesticated plant from its enemies just as efficiently as they defended the wild ancestor of that domesticated plant. The hydrocyanic acid content of bitter manioc (Manibot esculenta) makes necessary a whole battery of processing techniques to make it into something that can be eaten without fatal consequences, but it also protects the plant from the swarming pests in the tropical lowlands where it grows. If sweet manioc, which contains no hydrocyanic acid, were planted in these areas, it would not survive to produce a crop. In the same fashion, the hard horny outsides of flint maize kernels made it difficult for the women who had to transform them into something edible, but they protected the grains against weevils and insect larvae in the granary. Such complex interactions of benefits and drawbacks make one respect the nameless domesticators who are ultimately responsible for the produce heaped up in our supermarkets.

Plant food, wild or domesticated, could not be a major part of human diet without processing by fire, that is to say cooking. Too much vegetable food contained poisonous or nasty-tasting substances and excess nutritionless fiber (however much we may value it today), or was just too hard and tough to chew. Application of heat made these substances usable by humans. Another reason to cook the food was that it made it taste better. A nineteenth-century French doctor doing biochemical work at the University of Nancy proved that roasting, baking, or frying produced a browning caused by turning the starches into sugars, now called for its discoverer the Maillard effect. This makes flavors more complicated, more interesting, and in every way superior to the original raw material. The only foods found in nature that approach the subtlety of flavor of baked, broiled, or fried food are fully ripe fruits (McGee 1990).

Foods cooked by boiling do not profit from the flavor-enhancing Maillard effect and probably came later, because of the necessity of having containers in which to do the boiling. Before the invention of pottery either skins or baskets could be used, with the water being heated by stone boiling, where stones hot from the fire were dropped into the liquid with a pair of tongs. It is interesting in this connection that the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), a plant which originated in Africa but apparently managed to bob its way over the ocean in time to be picked up by the early inhabitants of both Mexico and Peru, is the earliest domesticated plant so far found in the New World. Its primary use was almost certainly as a container, but here again the users would have had to be discriminating, because some bottle gourds impart intense bitterness to any liquid they hold, while others leave their contents untainted.

Cooking was but one of the many methods used to tame recalcitrant foodstuffs. Not that any particular substance received only one treatment—far from it. In many cases intricate sequences of techniques were used, so complex that one wonders however such processes could have been invented, and how the time and energy could be spared to implement them.

These other methods of food processing conferred different flavors and textures on the raw materials, as well as making them easier for human beings to assimilate. They included making the substance into smaller pieces by cracking, pounding, grating, or grinding it. Before or after the particles were made smaller the foods could be soaked in water, or leached. Finally, to round out the four basic methods of food treatment, that is to say cooking, grinding, and soaking, we have fermentation, which opens up vast new possibilities for changes in flavor and texture as well as the potential for the production of alcohol, a substance which was of as much interest to the inhabitants of the New World as it was to the dwellers in the Old.

Different treatments applied in different sequences change not only the flavor, texture, and digestibility of the food but the nutritional value as well. It is amazing to read ignorant archaeologists building up elaborate hypotheses about the nutritional value of the plant and animal remains found in dry caves and establishing "carrying capacities" for that particular environment without once stopping to ask themselves how the foods could have been prepared and consumed. Presumably they think that it does not make a difference. It does make a difference, and, as we shall see, sometimes it is a big one.

Some of these food-value-enhancing techniques will be touched on in the chapters to come, but this is not a nutritional treatise and does not pretend to be one. The goal of this book is to describe the complex and highly developed culinary traditions of the New World, which are now part of the world's culinary heritage. I will begin by sketching the history of some of the major foodstuffs of the New World and their initial impact on the Old World. Having become familiar with some of the ingredients important either in pre-Columbian times, or our own times, or both, we can go on to investigate the whole constellations of culinary practices, customs, and beliefs which constituted the cuisines of the three major New World civilizations: the Aztecs of Mexico; the Maya of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras; and the Inca of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. A brief section on the foodways of the Europeans in the New World during the early period of their settlement will point out the striking similarities between their food and the food of the peoples they conquered, as well as the differences. Finally, the food of all four of these culinary cultures will be contrasted to our own, the food of the industrialized world during the last decade of the twentieth century.



“Sophie Coe, anthropologist and culinary historian, gives us a cook's tour of the nuclear areas of New World civilization. Her book is a botanically, zoologically, and nutritionally informed synthesis of information on the New World's contribution to the world's inventory of foodstuffs and, most importantly, on how the use of these foodstuffs coalesced in the culinary cultures of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca. It is the first work of its kind on the past civilizations of the New World. . . . This book is essential reading for Americanist anthropologists as well as scholars in a variety of other disciplines, and it constitutes serious pleasure reading for lay readers who are cooks, eaters, and students of foodways.”
American Anthropologist

“Provides tantalizing snapshots of Native American cuisine and culture, especially at the first intersection with the Europeans. . . . It must not be missed by anyone professing a serious interest in America's cuisines for scientific or gustatory reasons. . . . Appropriate for any interested reader as well as for the academic consumer, this volume presents a wealth of excellent information and is a marvelous read.”
Nahua Newsletter

“Hardly anyone who works with food history can afford to skip reading the New World staples and produce chapters, and once started on the book, won't want to stop anyway. Coe's story of the early New World civilizations and their encounters with Europeans is extraordinarily readable, interwoven with descriptions of food, how it was prepared and served, its significance to the people who ate it. Coe treats the New World people respectfully and with dignity, and at times the narrative is unbearably sad as it describes their conquest by the Spanish.”
Food History News

“Sophie Coe . . . was as rare in our time as her hero, Bernardino Sahagún, was in his: a culinary anthropologist who gave equal weight to both parts of that phrase.... However, despite the strong culinary thrust of the text, the 'discovery' of New World foods is an aspect of her story that—although extensively discussed—becomes. finally, almost beside the point. Her real subject is the tragic collision of two worldviews perhaps least likely to understand, let alone appreciate, each other. If mestizo culture remains as volatile and potent as a vinaigrette, it is because, even today, the two continue to coexist less like water and chocolate than oil and vinegar.”
Cook Book


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