Nov 082014

aztec1 aztec2

On this date in 1519 Hernán Cortés entered Tenochtitlan and was greeted warmly by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1466 – 29 June 1520), also known by a number of variant spellings including Montezuma, Moteuczoma, Motecuhzoma and referred to in full by early Nahuatl texts as Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (Moctezuma the Young)

In 1517, Moctezuma received the first reports of Europeans landing on the east coast of his empire; this was the expedition of Juan de Grijalva who had landed on San Juan de Ulúa, which although within Totonac territory was under the auspices of the Aztec Empire. Moctezuma ordered that he be kept informed of any new sightings of foreigners at the coast and posted extra watch guards to accomplish this.

When Cortés arrived in 1519, Moctezuma was immediately informed and he sent emissaries to meet the newcomers; one of them known to be an Aztec noble named Tentlil in Nahuatl but referred to in the writings of Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo as “Tendile”. As the Spaniards approached Tenochtitlan they made an alliance with the Tlaxcalteca, who were enemies of the Aztec Triple Alliance, and they helped instigate revolt in many towns under Aztec dominion. Moctezuma was aware of this and he sent gifts to the Spaniards, probably in order to show his superiority to the Spaniards and Tlaxcalteca.

On November 8, 1519, Moctezuma met Cortés on the causeway leading into Tenochtitlan and the two leaders exchanged gifts. Moctezuma gave Cortés the gift of an Aztec calendar, one disc of crafted gold and another of silver. Cortés later melted these down for their material value.

Moctezuma brought Cortés to his palace where the Spaniards lived as his guests for several months. Moctezuma continued to govern his empire and even undertook conquests of new territory during the Spaniards’ stay at Tenochtitlan. At some time during that period Moctezuma became a prisoner in his own house. Exactly why this happened is not clear from the extant sources. The Aztec nobility reportedly became increasingly displeased with the large Spanish army staying in Tenochtitlan, and Moctezuma told Cortés that it would be best if they left. Shortly thereafter Cortés left to fight Pánfilo de Narváez, and during his absence a massacre of Spaniards in the main temple turned the tense situation between the Spaniards and Aztecs into direct hostilities, and Moctezuma became a hostage used by the Spaniards to assure their security.

In the subsequent battles with the Spaniards after Cortés’ return, Moctezuma was killed. The details of his death are unknown, with different versions of his demise given by different sources.

In his Historia, Bernal Díaz del Castillo states that on July 1, 1520, the Spanish forced Moctezuma to appear on the balcony of his palace, appealing to his countrymen to retreat. The people were appalled by their emperor’s complicity and pelted him with rocks and darts. He died a short time after that. Bernal Díaz gives this account:

Barely was the emperor’s speech to his subjects finished when a sudden shower of stones and darts descended. Our men who had been shielding Montezuma had momentarily neglected their duty when they saw the attack cease while he spoke to his chiefs. Montezuma was hit by three stones, one on the head, one on the arm, and one on the leg; and though they begged him to have his wounds dressed and eat some food and spoke very kindly to him, he refused. Then quite unexpectedly we were told that he was dead.

Cortés similarly reported that Moctezuma was stabbed by his countrymen. On the other hand, the indigenous accounts claim that he was killed by the Spanish prior to their leaving the city.

The Spaniards were forced to flee the city and they took refuge in Tlaxcala, and signed a treaty with them to conquer Tenochtitlan, offering to the Tlaxcalans freedom from any kind of tribute and the control of Tenochtitlan.

Moctezuma was then succeeded by his brother Cuitláhuac, who died shortly after during a smallpox epidemic. He was succeeded by his adolescent nephew, Cuauhtémoc. During the siege of the city, the sons of Moctezuma were murdered by the Aztec, possibly because they wanted to surrender. By the following year, the Aztec empire had fallen to an army of Spanish and their Indian allies, primarily Tlaxcalans.

Following the conquest, Moctezuma’s daughter Techichpotzin became known in Spanish as Isabel Moctezuma. She was given a large estate by Cortés, who also fathered a child by her, Leonor Cortés Moctezuma. Isabel was married and widowed by a conquistador in Cortés’s original group, Alonso Grado (died. ca. 1527), a poblador (Spaniard who arrived after the conquest), Pedro Gallego (died ca. 1531), and conquistador Juan Cano, who survived her.

We know a great deal about Aztec food and cooking from both indigenous and Spanish sources. I could write a dissertation on the subject, but will, instead, direct you to a couple of good sites if you want detailed information.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo (conquistador) gives a now famous description of what he calls an Aztec feast, but which was probably just a normal meal for Moctezuma:

For his meals his cooks had more than thirty styles of dishes made according to their fashion and usage; and they put them on small low clay braziers so that they would not get cold.. They cooked more than three hundred dishes of the food which Motecuhzoma was going to eat, and more than a thousand more for the men of his guard; and when it was time to eat, sometimes Motecuhzoma went out with his nobles and mayordomos, who showed him which dish was the best or of which birds and things they were composed, and as they advised him, so he ate, but he went out to see the food on rare occasions, and only as a pastime, he sat on a low, richly worked soft seat, and the table was also low, and made in the same manner as the seat, and there they put the tablecloths of white fabric, and some rather large handkerchiefs of the same, and four women gave him water for his hands out of a kind of deep accquaminile, which they call jicales, and to catch the water they put down a kind of plate, and gave him the towels, and two other women brought him the tortillas; and when he began to eat they put in front of him a thing like a door of wood all painted up with gold so that he could not be seen eating; and the four women stood aside, and there came to his side four great lords and elders, who stood, and from time to time Motecuhzoma chatted with them and asked them questions, and as a great favor gave each of those old men a dish of what he had been eating; and they said that those old men were his near relations and councilors and judges, and the plates of food that Motecuhzoma gave them they ate standing, with much reverence, and without looking him in the face. They served him on Cholula pottery, some red and some black. While he was eating it was unthinkable that there be any disturbance or loud speech among his guard. The same four women removed the tablecloths and returned with water for his hands, which they did with much reverence. Motecuhzoma spoke to those four old noblemen of worthwhile things, and they took their leave with great respect, and he rested. When the great Motecuhzoma had eaten then all of his guard and many of his house servants ate, and it seems to me that they took our more than a thousand plates of dishes, as well as more than two thousand jars of chocolate with its foam, and no end of fruit.

This is how Bernardino de Sahagún (Franciscan friar and ethnographer) described the Aztec street markets:

They sell meat tamales; turkey meat packets; plain tamales; tamales cooked in an earth oven; those cooked in an olla, grains of maize with chile, tamales with chile, fish tamales, fish with grains of maize, frog tamales, frog with grains of maize, axolotl with grains of maize, axolotl tamales, tamales with grains of maize, mushrooms with grains of maize, tuna cactus with grains of maize, rabbit tamales, rabbit with grains of maize, pocket gopher tamales: tasty–tasty, very tasty, seasoned with chile, salt, tomatoes, squash seeds: shredded, crumbled, juiced. They sell tamales of maize softened in wood ashes, the water of tamales, tamales of maize softened in lime–narrow tamales, fruit tamales, cooked bean tamales; cooked beans with grains of maize, cracked beans with grains of maize; broke, cracked grains of maize. They sell salted wide tamales, tamales bound up on top, with grains of maize thrown in; crumbled, pounded tamales; spotted tamales, pointed tamales, white fruit tamales, red fruit tamales, turkey egg tamales, turkey eggs with grains of maize; tamales of tender maize, tamales of green maize, brick-shaped tamales, braised ones; plain tamales, honey tamales, bee tamales, tamales with grains of maize, squash tamales, crumbled tamales, maize flower tamales. The worst food sellers sell filthy tamales, discolored tamales–broken, tasteless, quite tasteless, inedible, frightening, deceiving; tamales made of chaff, swollen tamales, spoiled tamales, foul tamales–sticky, gummy; old tamales, cold tamales– dirty and sour, very sour, exceedingly sour, stinking. The food seller sells tortillas which are thick, thickish, thick overall, extremely thick; he sells thin — thin tortillas, stretch-out tortillas,; disc-like, straight with shelled beans, cooked shelled beans, uncooked shelled beans; with shelled beans mashed; chile with maize, tortillas with meat and grains of maize, folded with chile–chile wrapped, gathered in the hand; ashen tortillas, washed tortillas. He sells folded tortillas, thick tortillas, coarse tortillas. He sells tortillas with turkey eggs, tortillas made with honey, pressed ones, glove-shaped tortillas, plain tortillas, assorted ones, braised ones, sweet tortillas, amaranth seed tortillas, squash tortillas, green maize tortillas, brick-shaped tortillas, tuna cactus tortillas; broken, crumbled, old tortillas; cold tortillas, toasted ones, dried tortillas, stinking tortillas. He sells foods sauces, hot sauces; fried foods, olla-cooked [boiled] foods, juices, sauces of juices, shredded with chile, with squash seeds, with tomatoes, with smoked chile, with hot chile, with yellow chile, with mild red chile sauce, yellow chile sauce, hot chile sauce, with “bird excrement” sauce, sauce of smoked chile, heated sauces, bean sauce; toasted beans, cooked beans, mushroom sauce, sauce of small squash, sauce of large tomatoes, sauce of ordinary tomatoes, sauce of various kinds of sour herbs, avocado sauce.

So let’s go with avocado sauce even though tamales and tortillas rule the roost. You can find one recipe for tamales here:

Guacamole is the modern Mexican Spanish for “avocado sauce.” It was probably originally no more than avocado mashed in a mortar with some seasonings. The modern version adds tomatoes, onions and cilantro with the option of adding hot chiles.

No need for a detailed recipe. You need nice ripe avocados as the base. Chop them up coarsely and add what you will. I usually add seeded tomatoes, onions chopped fine, and cilantro. Avoid using a food processor because the finished product needs to have some integrity – the ingredients blending but still with the individual components standing out. I use the traditional method of pounding the ingredients in a mortar with a pestle.