Between the grand feasts consumed by the Mexica rulers in Tenochtitlan Palace and the daily meals the last of the commoners living by the wharves or the marketplace hastily devoured, the flow of the edible goods entering the island city had to be maintained and regulated on a daily basis, made sure to be supplied with no failures.
To do that, the agricultural effort in the form of chinampas, floating fields, all around the island-city was developed and then improved to perfection, while the mainland goods were hastened to Tenochtitlan through various trading routes.
The four main crops of the Mexican Valley were of an equal importance: centli maize, etl beans, chia (chian means oily in Nahuatl) and huauhtli amaranth. Due to certain religious aspect connected to the amaranth, the Spanish conquerors tried to outlaw its cultivation, because on several ceremonies statues of deities made of amaranth seeds glued with honey were worshiped and consumed after the proper rites
In an island-city such as Tenochtitlan, with a limited space and an obvious urban crowdedness, people of lower walks of life cultivated various basic necessities in small yards besides their houses, growing staples such as chia and beans, but going to markets to purchase maize, meat or fish.
According to various primary sources, fish and other lake offerings were abound, prepared and cooked in various ways. Frogs, reptiles such as iguanas, ants and their eggs, maguey worms that even today are considered a delicacy; water shrimp, salamander-axolotl, flies and aquatic larvae aneneztli. Poor urban people and peasants gathered a substance called tecuitlatl that floated in the lake and which the later-day chronicles described as cheesy but not badly tasting. Wrapped in tortillas, such mash had a strong slightly bitter taste.
Among the most appreciated delicacies, the well-off citizens of Tenochtitlan were reported to enjoy tamales stuffed with meat, snails and fruit, frogs in chili sauce, white fish from the west of the country with chilli and tomato, or salamander-axolotl seasoned with ground pepper and yellow nugget, a treat for those times.
Some meat was grown inside the city, but to a limited extent. Treats such as deer, rabbits, hares, peccaries or birds like pheasants, doves and various waterfowl were brought in by traders, sold on the marketplace to be consumed by the wealthier dwellers of Tenochtitlan who could afford to buy food. The only two domesticated animals were hairless dogs-xoloitzcuintli bred especially for the kitchen pot, vegetarian animals, easy to maintain; and turkeys-huehxolot. Turkey meat seemed to be appreciated more that dog meat due to its taste and smoothness. Some chronicles claim that a clever host might serve a dish coated by the slices of turkey but hiding the bulk of the cheaper dog meat underneath.
Some sources claim that the meal times were announced daily by drumming or blowing conch-shells from the tops of the neighborhood’s temples-teocalli. Others say that the people were responsible for breaking their own working routines according to the position of the sun.
Generally, the time of the traditional breakfast was reported to be held at mid-morning, a frugal meal for ordinary people, consisted of a couple of tortillas with beans and often a spicy salsa. At the end of the work day, a man could spoil himself with tamales bought on the marketplace, or proceed home for an evening meal of a gruel, lake fish or poultry accompanied by tortillas.
Banquets at the Palace or homes of the aristocracy was a different matter. An imperial meal could start at midday and last for a very long time, consisted of many courses and an entertainment services in between, ending with an invigorating chocolate-drink (xocolatl) and a clay pipe filled with vanilla flavored snuff or scented woods. Such meals could consume endless amount of maize, beans and amaranth, 80 to 100 turkeys, a dozen dogs and about 20 loads of cocoa beans to begin with. On special events they could also include peyote (peyotl), hallucinogenic mushrooms teonanacatl (literally translating as mushroom of gods) and other such rare substances. Only the royalty and high aristocracy, and less often especially wealthy pochteca-traders could afford holding such events.
An excerpt from “Heart of the Battle”, The Aztec Chronicles, book three
“Just look at this procession!”
The people who brought them there were bearing upon them again, followed by servants with trays. Not a small army like that of the imperial women, but promising nevertheless, the aroma of the trays spreading, overwhelming, the most delicious of smells. Their stomachs responded in a loud manner, which made them burst into a renewed bout of snickering.
“You can read paintings, yes? Those things they draw in folded papers?” he asked after they had been directed to the mats in another alcove at the shadow of wide parapet, a low table placed between them and the contents of the trays laden upon it, making their mouths drool.
Necalli was busy grabbing the nearest tamale, hot and dripping, full of delicious stuffing, meat and something else spicy. Dunking it in a nearby bowl of thick sauce, he shoved it into his mouth in its entirety, devouring it in one bite.
“Sort of, yes,” he mumbled through his full mouth. “Don’t like to do that. Only when forced. When the priests shove your face into those books, you can’t do much but to read the glyphs and decipher their meaning. Why?” Miztli busied himself with scanning the contents of the smaller plates, laden with slices of meat and pieces of avocado spread on a bed of tortilla, begging to be grabbed. But for the letter, he would have attacked those as well.
“Can you… would you…” He tried to think of how to put it, or rather to avoid asking at all. How to read her note without anyone else peeking in it? Impossible. He could not recognize one single glyph. He didn’t even know what they called this kind of painting, not until coming to Tenochtitlan, until entering their school. How could one paint one’s words and in a way so the others could decipher those, guess their meaning?
“What are you mumbling there about?” Necalli’s eyes were upon him, his hand, in the process of reaching for another tamale, waving idly, lingering. “What about those books?”
“Can you show me how to read them? How to recognize those paintings, those glyphs? I mean, this note, I don’t know what’s in it, and I need to… I must…”
He didn’t dare to take his eyes away from the loaded plates, but after a heartbeat, the silence became annoying, wearing on his nerves. A fleeting glance confirmed what he suspected. The calmecac boy was staring at him, his eyes unbecomingly round, although his mouth was close, holding its contents but apparently forgetting to keep chewing them.
“You don’t know how to read glyphs?” It came out in an awkward mumble, forcing the speaker to swallow too much, not a properly chewed mass. “I mean, you can’t read that tiny note?”Miztli felt like springing to his feet and running out and away. To reexamine the contents of the trays became a necessity.