Monday, November 12, 2012

Ancient Maya

What Did The Peasants Do All Day?

The bread of the Maya has always been and still is made of ground maize (corn) formed into thin pancakes called tortillas, the Spanish name for pancakes. Cooking, and especially making tortillas, was and is the peasant wife's main activity.

First she soaked the hard, dry kernel of maize over night in limewater to soften the hulls. The next morning she washed off the hulls and ground the grains into thick dough called zacan on a smooth stone metate. When it was close to time for the main meal, she took a lump of zacan and patted it into a round, thin, flat cake and baked it on a round stone griddle placed on the stone hearth.

Today the Maya housewife takes her corn to the village mill for grinding and carries the dough in a bucket. If she is really a modern woman, she may have a press to make the family's tortillas, unless her husband insists that she pat by hand, the way it was always done.

The Maya farmer, meanwhile, who has been laboring in his milpa (corn field) since daybreak, pauses occasionally for a snack. He mixes a lump of zacan with water to a make a drink called pozole. ( A thicker mixture of zacan and water, served hot and sometimes sweetened with honey, is known as atole.) When he comes back from the fields, he expects his meal to be ready and his tortillas hot. The average Maya man eats nearly twenty tortillas at one meal.

One difference between ancient and modern Maya eating habits seems to be the time of the main meal. Formerly it was "an hour before sunset"; now it is usually noon or early afternoon. Whenever it is, the women today serve stews, tamales (corn mush with a spicy filling wrapped in dried corn husks and steamed), chili, beans, vegetables, fruit, and maybe some chocolate, if they can afford it-- and of course, stacks and stacks of tortillas kept hot in the gourd.

The men and women eat separately, as they always have. The men first, seated on mats or low stools. After the men have been fed, the women and girls eat their meal, saving the leftover tortillas to be toasted for breakfast the next day.


The Mystery of the Ancient Maya
by Carolyn Meyer & Charles Gallenkamp
A Margaret K. McElderly Book
Published by Atheneum (1985)