Week 16 SCRAP Reading Group: Tamales!

On Friday, the SCRAP reading group hosted a holiday cooking party online—tamales! Thanks to Claudia Alarcón and Harri Kettunen for joining us to talk about pre-Columbian food! A summary of our reading and discussion questions can be found below (provided by Shawn).

Alarcón Cacheux, Claudia and Verónica A. Vázquez López (2012) Part I: An Introduction to Mesoamerican Pre-Hispanic Cuisine. In Spice it up! An introduction to Pre-Hispanic Mexican Cooking, pp. 3-24. Workshop handbook prepared for the 17th European Maya Conference, Dec. 9-15, 2012, Helsinki.

This handbook was written in support of a 3-day (?) workshop on the history, archaeology, epigraphy, and iconography of food traditions in Pre-Hispanic Mexico for the 2012 European Maya Conference in Helsinki. Both Meaghan and Shawn had the good fortune to participate in this workshop, along with another several years later. Both were organized and led by Claudia and Verónica and their names are still whispered in hushed tones (or loudly proclaimed depending on the beverage involved) when the inevitable topic of food in Mesoamerica comes up. They have been generous enough to provide us with the full handbook for your reading pleasure, and the section on tamales (Part II) is a must. So thank you to both of them. As for Part I, the specific reading at hand, after introducing the general topic of food and outlining the sources available for its study, Claudia and Verónica break down the utensils, ingredients, preparations, and contexts thought to characterize Pre-Hispanic cuisine in Mexico and the archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic information of these same. Of course, the original workshops paired reading, lecture, and discussion, with cooking, a model we have sought to replicate to a limited extent with this week’s reading group. Check out the recipes in Part III of the workbook.

Discussion Questions:
We’re guessing that much of our conversation will develop organically as we labour away in the kitchen, but just so that there is some structure (if needed)…

1. Maize, beans, squash and salt. We generally take it for granted that these were the staples of ancient Mayas diets. We expect that maize, beans, and squash were grown, regardless of variations in climate, environment, or soil. Further, it seems clear that, whether locally produced or acquired through well established trade networks, all communities needed salt to meet their dietary requirements and preserve perishable foodstuffs. But what of regional variability? What of the accoutrements? To what extent might we expect food traditions to vary by availability, preservation, or preference?

2. To what degree are the culinary preferences of the core expanded to the periphery? Or the present to the past? To what degree have you been able to shed light on the cuisine of your sites/regions? What challenges have you faced? What solutions have you come up with?

3. A non-archaeology topic: Food is a universal. The preparation and consumption of food punctuates our daily lives. Share some food memories. Go on! Everybody likes talking about food.