Combining Cultures

Tomatoes, Potatoes, Chiles, Squash, Beans, Chocolate, Corn: the ingredients that have arguably shaped the world's cuisines orginiated in North and South America. The Spanish and European arrival in the Americas ushered in a period of dramatic change. Globalization may be a modern term to us, but the trading of food and materials in this era signals a new world order based on ecomonic and cultural goods. After all, what would Italian fare be without the tomato? Or Swiss or Belgian culture without chocolate?

So when you sit down for dinner tonight, what's on your plate? Where did it come from? It is likely you will be looking at a combination of foods from around the world, and representing a variety of cultures. There on your pizza is tomato sauce and maybe red peppers from the Americas, and cheese and meat from animals originating in Europe or Asia. Your plate tells a story. It's a story rooted in the conquest, and at times the brutality, of Spanish entradas. It is also a story of emerging culture, one chapter in a continuing saga.

Filmmaker Mike Foster explores these themes in his video, New World Sustenance:
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8 minutes, 17 seconds

The "Three Sisters" - Corn, Beans, and Squash - in addition to tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and chocolate help shape not only the cuisine and culture of Latin America, but the world. In this video Mike Foster explores the varied uses of these foods, with particular attention to squash.


Corn or Wheat Tortillas?

Dried corn cobs and grains. Dried corn cobs and grains.

Left image
Dried corn cobs and grains.
Credit: NPS - Palma

Right image
White Sonoran Wheat grains
Credit: NPS - Palma

La Tortilla – you would be hard pressed to wander into a grocery store across the US and not find some form of a tortilla. We all know of this particular food item. So simple, yet profound. What comes to mind? Taco Bell? Mass produced hard shelled tacos? Or Thousands of years of human experience or the smell of fresh masa cooking on a wood fire comal?

The tortilla, or “small cake” as directly translated from old Spanish, has a long history in North America. Gaining popularity with the increased domestication and cultivation of Maiz (corn), tortillas originated in the form of preparing a water-based masa from a grain flour. The most traditional tortilla is the corn tortilla dating back to 10,000 BC in Mesoamerica. Although the corn tortilla is the most widely spread and enduring through the ages, some regions made thick hard tortilla-like breads from other flours such as mesquite or amaranth. 

So, do you still have those white fluffy wheat flour tortillas in mind? Well, we are not quite there yet. A very important discovery was made with the processing of corn. Corn consumed directly from the cob or ground straight into a flour is made up mostly of starch (a form of carbohydrates) with small amounts of sugars, fiber, and protein. You may notice that the human digestive system does not always process all of the corn. This is because there are nutrients locked away that the human body cannot utilize, or at least until they are released. This is where the process of nixtamalization comes in. Mesoamerican cultures realized before 1000 BC that by soaking and cooking corn grain in an alkaline solution not only makes the masa (dough) much easier to work with but also releases very important nutrients for the benefit of human health. Typically, the corn was boiled with lime or even wood ash in some cases. This removes the outer skin of the grains. This process results in a removal of toxins, increased workability of the grain, improved flavor, and most importantly access to important nutrients. This process makes niacin, an essential human nutrient and a form of vitamin B3, readily accessible when nixtamalization occurs. Some historians believe this alone set up Mesoamerica to so successfully build large affluent populations and civilizations (Olmec, Maya, Aztec). 

So how does this relate to Coronado National Memorial and the history of Spanish conquest of the American Southwest? Well now you can think of that piping hot white flour tortilla right off the griddle. Now enters the scene…. Wheat. A grain that we are likely very used to and a fan of, wheat has a long history originating in the lands where Europe, Asia, and Africa meet. Although not commonly thought of as wheat growing country, the arid regions of Arizona and Sonora ended up becoming immensely productive in the production of wheat introduced by the Spaniards. In modern day there are a variety of regional cuisines that blend indigenous food types, but use wheat as a main ingredient. A true fusion of cultures for the taste buds to experience! Among these borderland examples are pozole de trigo (wheat pozole soup), coyotas (wheat flour pastries), and a huge variety of plates that utilize wheat tortillas. These tortillas are specially made to be extra thin ranging from smaller than your hand to the length of your arm. 

Whether you are eating fresh tortillas off of the street in Hermosillo, Sonora Mexico or grabbing some tacos at a food truck in Tucson, AZ let the rich flavors of the borderlands inspire your imagination of the impact of Spanish colonialism on Native America. The cuisine and the foods we eat today are not the only way that Spanish culture and Native American cultures clashed, harmonized, and ultimately blended in the borderlands of the present United States and Mexico.

Last updated: September 25, 2023

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