The History of Food: How Pork Became a Latin Staple

By James Corwell, Certified Master Chef

The sun is high early afternoon in Veracruz, Mexico. Heat stirs as a breeze from the gulf carries the smell of wet chickens, stale cardboard and rose.  Small shanty shops are set back in the shrouding leaves of tropical trees. The clapboard on the shops is painted in pastels of periwinkle, coral, and Azul. Corrugated tin, old wood and dried mud display rural handy work.  The few people who are out seem well adjusted to the heat. They are glazed in their own sweat, yet comfortable in the humidity.

I retreat close to the buildings into what little shade remains and approach a rusted chrome barstool. The leather seat is cracked, which exposes the worn foam cushion.  I squeeze into the bar to get my back out of the sun, and I notice that the walls are decorated with Diaz de la Muerte (Day of the Dead) memorabilia and streamers even though it is not the season. A painted Virgin Mary on the wall watches over us all framed by Pepsi, Marlboro and Corona signs to keep her company.

The hand-painted crimson wall menu reads pork and more pork, so I order the house specialty pozole (pork stew).  And I wondered if people realize how pork came to be such a staunch symbol of Latin cuisine.

Amaranth vs. swine

In the beginning, amaranth was one of America’s staple super grains. The high-protein grain was a vital food source for the Aztecs and, not only did they eat it, they worshiped it. They would fill in the areas below the pyramids and gaze upward to watch the high priest drain the blood of the sacrificed animal, readying the blood for its divine provenance with amaranth. Small idols were shaped from the congealed mass of amaranth seed, honey and blood and revered for the promise of another bountiful harvest, then broken apart and eaten. What must Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador who colonized Mexico for Spain, felt when he first saw Aztecs worship this grain when he landed in Mexico in the 16th century? Cortez and his missionaries sought to save the savages from their beliefs and outlawed what they considered “heathen” rituals.

It was during one of these rituals, Cortez, beset in his anger of amaranth worship, ordered his conquistadors to kill the high priests and then burn the vast fields of blood-red amaranth plants, robbing the people of their main food source.  Before the ash-filled air settled, amaranth was wiped out and history began a new chapter. Cortes had overthrown the Aztec empire.

Initially pigs had been brought in to feed the soldiers and missionaries who crossed the ocean in search of gold and glory with Cortes. So, when the sickening sweet smoke cleared from the burned amaranth fields crops of sugar cane, wheat and swine rose in its place. The prized meat of Spain was now the appointed staple of the Aztecs.

The Spanish colonization of the Americas is often portrayed with heroes and villains.  However, some believe the latter is most prevalent, but no one can ignore Spain’s influence on the Caribbean and lower Americas’ culture. Seeds from the amaranth plant spread around the world and different types can be found in Africa, India and Nepal as it survives well in low-water countries. In the 1970s, Amaranth experienced renewed interest in the U.S. and now is grown in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota and Long Island, New York.

The benefits of amaranth

The health benefits are vast. It contains 13-14 percent protein, which is higher than most grains, as well as three times the average amount of calcium, and it is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. This is also the only grain known to have vitamin C. It is often referred to as a complete grain because it contains an important  amino acid, lysine.

It is prepared like rice or is popped similar to popcorn mixed with sugar or honey to make a candy. It is a part of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, where amaranth seed skulls are made and eaten. The flavor of the grain is nutty and can lean towards peppery.

Mexico now

My stew arrives, a red chili broth with chunks of meat and hominy breaking the surface, complete with a thick oil slick.  A separate plate of shaved cabbage, radish, cilantro, onion, lime and Serrano peppers are served to flavor the hot broth.  The stew is good once I dab it with a tortilla and stir the oil and salt into the broth. The chilies are so hot I can feel my face warm with a sensation so intense.  All is good.

The stool squeaks as I swivel around to leave. I swat a fly from my neck, and go slowly against the sun with a heavy stomach.  Having relished the easy pace of satisfying food, I wonder if I would not be better off if the pork stew was made with amaranth? Amaranth helped the Aztec build a civilization of millions in a land that had very little meat protein. Amaranth was made into breads, salads and stews with potatoes and chili and could have been the gold and fountain of youth Cortez was looking for, but instead he destroyed it.  Today it is making a comeback most often found in health food stores or popped as a garnish on delicate salads in fancy restaurants.

But, I suppose the pigs here are well-fed with the usual leftovers and trimmings, and perhaps even amaranth.

James Corwell is the creator of Tomato Sushi, a sustainable, vegan alternative to bluefin tuna. An Atlanta native, Corwell carries the professional designation of ACF-Certified Master Chef. He was previously the chef at Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, Napa Valley; Le Foret, New Orleans; and Haddingtons, Austin. In 2010, Corwell was voted best new chef by New Orleans Magazine. Tomato Sushi has been featured in Bon Appetit, NPR, Fast Company and Civil Eats.