Maya Research Notes

Oh, the luck of the draw.  The food of the Maya was, of course, the most sparsely recorded of the 3 major central and south american cultures. It’s too bad this event isn’t “Aztec-mas”, I’d have a whole lot more sources available to me. The best source I’ve found so far is America’s First Cuisines by Sophie Coe, with Reconstructing the Ancient Maya Diet, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and The Food of the Present-Day Maya Indians of Yucatan (1936) as back-up sources. The next set of back-up sources for Mesoamerican cooking techniques (like making tamales) are the 2 modern traditional Mexican cookbooks False Tongues and Sunday Bread and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen.

This is probably going to be the feast where I push the most boundaries of authenticity. Gainesville, Florida does not have a sufficient population of Mexicans, Guatemalans, or Hondurans to have much in the way of Mayan specialty items. In present-day Mexico, traditional Indio/Mayan foods are considered redneck or hick food. It’s like a middle-class guy in Queens looking at traditional Appalachian food from 50 years ago. I have ordered seeds for some of the specialty herbs like epazote and Tagetes lucida to grow at home, and hoping I can get some other fresh greens shipped in.

Piztle is turning out to be an interesting puzzle. According to Coe, it’s the seed of the Calorcarpum mammosum. When I google that, it’s been renamed Pouteria sapota, which is the Mamey sapote. The fruit of which I can get right now at the corner grocery store. I started getting really excited… the seed is referenced as an important flavoring added to cacao drinks, similar to bitter almond. I would love to have that for an added flavor note. However, a couple chapters later Coe refers directly to the fruit of Pouteria sapota with no reference to the seeds at all. So tomorrow I’ll be buying a couple mameys and digging out their seeds to see if they have any discernible almond smell.  If they do then I might buy all the mameys I can right now and trying to figure out how to preserve the seeds, since I have no idea if they’ll still be available in November.

Another important Maya food is chaya/Jatropha aconitifolia, a common cooking green. The leaves were also used to wrap tamales. I have found a source for young plants here in Gainesville and I already have a space in the yard cleared and ready. I’m hoping I can grow enough chaya before the feast to use the correct leaves to wrap tamales.

A larger issue is the lack of fresh masa. The vast majority of corn grown by the Maya (and all other native American cultures) was dried, nixtamalized and then ground before being cooked. The nixtamalized and ground raw corn dough is called masa. This dough was used to make everything, all of their “bread”. Another result of not enough Mexicans in Gainesville is that no one here sells fresh masa. In larger US cities there are places that sell tamales, fresh tortillas, and fresh masa. I can get dry masa, called masa harina, and reconstitute it, but this is basically the difference between Uncle Bens converted rice and good basmati, or using packaged 50¢ ramen noodles instead of fresh rolled pasta. It’s a last resort. I’m going to have to either make a big detour to the closest city, probably Orlando, on the way to the event, or bribe someone in Orlando to buy a huge quantity of fresh masa and bring it with them.

Another fun “let’s see how far we can stretch authenticity” is going to be breakfast. Y’all know that usually ALL of the meals at my events follow the theme of the feast and are a decent balance between what we as modern Americans find acceptable as foods for dinner, breakfast and lunch and what the medieval person would have eaten in the time/place of the theme. Well, can you guess what the Maya ate for breakfast and lunch every day? They ate gruel. No, seriously. Gruel. Specifically, a wide range of gruels made from masa and mixed with countless add-ins, honey, herbs, chiles, and sometimes mashed root vegetables. Oh, and sometimes they were soured, like yogurt. Would you like some sour corn yogurt with chilis on top for breakfast? Thought not. Me either, frankly. So I think it’s going to be “dinner for breakfast”. I’ll have to get creative to not repeat the limited number of documentable dishes in breakfast and feast.

I love a challenge!


7 thoughts on “Maya Research Notes

  1. I don’t know if masa ships well, but if you run out of places to look, let me know and I can probably get it in Atlanta. Goodness knows there’s a store on Buford Highway that stocks the stuff.

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