Mesquite Atole – Kúi Wihog

By Jacqueline Soule

Atole is a drink popular throughout Mexico, Central America, and the American Southwest. Atole is a usually a warm drink, generally based on corn, frequently sweetened somehow, and often prepared with cinnamon as well. Atole has countless various recipes for preparation, and every family has their own. Most people who grow up drinking atole consider it a breakfast drink, and/or a comfort food, and in some cases, a holiday treat. You could compare it to cocoa in the USA.  Atole is not always made from corn. It can also be made from rice, wheat, oatmeal, or mesquite pods.

Atole is a thick, carbohydrate-rich drink popular in much of Mexico.

Mesquite in the Southwest

For over 4,000 years, the peoples of the Southwest used the pods of the mesquite tree.  Mesquite is one of roughly 40 species of Prosopis, a desert legume tree. The pods are of various edibility and palatability, but all are considered “mesquite” a word that comes to us from the Náhuatl mizquitl.

Since they are legumes, and make their own fertilizer, mesquite trees can thrive in otherwise poor soil.

Most species of mesquite have sweet pods that can be eaten right off the tree, much in the manner of carob or tamarind. Mesquite pods contain seeds, but they are tiny. If eating fresh pods, the seeds can be spit out, much like watermelon seeds. 

Mesquite pods ripen in July, and thus the pods are a valuable source of food during the summer months. For farmers or hunter-gathering peoples, summer can be a lean time, before the corn is harvested, before many fruits are ripe for plucking, and long before it is time to harvest wild nuts.

The color of the pods varies from tree to tree within each species.  The redder ones are said to be sweeter.

Harvest & Preparation

Pods are plucked ripe from the tree. In the past they were laid in the sun to fully dry before grinding or storage. Modern cooks toast the pods in the oven. 

Traditional use was to enjoy the bounty of the season in the season when it occurred. Some pods were stored for fall celebrations. This was in part due to bruchid seed beetle larvae that often inhabit the seeds.

Mesquite flowers are popular with pollinators, with a mild honey-like fragrance.

Mesquite Nutrition

The pods of mesquite contain many complex carbohydrates, including soluble gums and fibers, making them a “slow release” carbohydrate source. These pods can taste quite sweet but have a very low glycemic index, making them an ideal food to help control blood sugar, and a food often possible for diabetic to safely enjoy.

Native peoples avoided eating an excess of fresh pods all at once. If overindulged in, these gums and fibers might lead to what can be politely termed “gastric distress.” Pods are also “a good source of calcium, manganese, iron, and zinc,” according to information compiled by anonymous (s.d.) in Healthy Traditions.[1]

New research shows that, for best health, pods should not be gathered off the ground. More at SavortheSW.com

Mesquite Use

The entire mesquite plant was, and still is, used in many ways, and I recall the first time I ever tasted one. My mother was a student of Edward and Rosamond Spicer, noted anthropologists. Thus in my childhood, we visited the Tohono O’odham many times and participated in an array of festivals. There were joyous processions, dancing, singing, laughing conversation. Older women clustered around small smoking fires with pots and kettles of tasty foods cooking and simmering away. The children ran and played kid games until called to order by the adults. I knew no words of O’odham, but kids don’t need words to play tag, jump rope, or take part in a popular hoop rolling game.

Every so often, one child would be called over by a grandmother, and the rest of us kids were invited too. Some tasty treat was passed around on a plate with a spoon or maybe a single tin cup for all to sip from. Lip smacking, gentle smiles, soft words, warm glances. I learned to say “kúi wihog,” the O’odham word for mesquite.

Mesquite pods are difficult to grind into meal, traditionally they were boiled to soften them.

Mesquite Atole

Basically, all you need to make mesquite atole are some mesquite pods and water. If you are wealthy, and want to honor the reason for the festival (such as a saint’s day or a memorial service), then you can add brown sugar and cinnamon. 

Whole mesquite pods are broken into small pieces and tossed in a pot of water to soak overnight. The next day, right in that same pot, heat up the water and pods. Mush the boiled pods well with a broad spoon against the side of the pot to release the sweet pod fibers to swirl in the water. Drink when pods are all mushy and have released their flavor. Some mesquite smoke from the campfire adds to the overall uniqueness of the experience.

Mesquite atole was consumed warm in the cooler months of winter. In summer, it was allowed to cool overnight and drunk as a nutritious morning breakfast drink. To this day, I make some for myself every so often.  I “cheat” and use ground mesquite meal, roughly 2 tablespoons per cup of boiling water.

Buena Salud!


Selected Bibliography

Anonymous  (s.d.).  Healthy Traditions: A Cookbook for Native Americans.  Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, AZ.

Dahl, K. A.  1995.  Wild Foods of the Sonoran Desert.  Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Publications, Tucson, AZ.

Ebling, W.  1986.  Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America.  University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Hodgson, W. C.  2001.  Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert.   University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.

Nagel, C.  (s. d.).  Mesquite Recipes.  Friends of Pronatura, Tucson, AZ.

Soule, J. A. (2011) Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today.  Tierra del Sol Institute Press, Tucson AZ.

Tohono O’odham Nation  (s.d.).  When Everything Was Real: An Introduction to Papago Desert Foods.  Tohono O’odham Nation, Sells, AZ.

A Recipe for Teaching Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

By Zara Anishanslin 

Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Teaching (and learning) Atlantic World history can be a depressing business. It requires thinking about the causes, course, and effects of some of the more horrific events in early modern history, such as the enforced migration of millions of enslaved Africans to Europe’s Atlantic colonies. Yet Atlantic World history has its more uplifting aspects, too. After all, it is a story of creation as well as destruction. Native American, European, and African people came together in cooperation as well as conflict. Exchanges among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans fundamentally transformed cultures, politics, economies, and—of most interest in this forum—food and recipes on both sides of the Atlantic. Chances are, whatever recipes you regularly eat, at least a few owe their existence to transatlantic exchange between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Beginning with Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, plants, animals, and diseases new to Native Americans arrived in the Americas and Caribbean, while plants, animals, and diseases new to Europe and Africa, similarly, made a transatlantic journey in the opposite direction. In addition to well-known commodities like sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa that traversed the Atlantic, more prosaic crops, animals, and germs crossed the Atlantic, at times accidentally. Things like pigs, cattle, horses, wheat, dandelions, rice, and smallpox travelled west; things like sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, turkeys, guinea pigs, tomatoes, and (perhaps) syphilis travelled east.  Such exchange formed the roots of the “Columbian Exchange,” as historian Alfred Crosby termed the phenomenon in his seminal 1972 book of the same name.

When the ship of French explorer Samuel de Champlain ran aground in what he called Port Saint Louis in 1605, he described seeing gardens and fields filled with beans and corn, inhabited by Native Americans who met the Frenchmen in canoes filled with freshly-caught cod.  Native American food and crops captivated the imagination of  Europeans like Champlain.  This is evident from his map of Port Saint Louis, which  took care to illustrate lushly tall fields of corn as well as items of navigational interest.

What Champlain called Port Saint Louis became better known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, English colonists who arrived there described a very different place; a depopulated community so devastated by smallpox that Native Americans “were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead.”[1] Such were the disastrous effects of the Columbian Exchange.

MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

But in its focus on corn, Champlain’s map also carries (if you’ll excuse the pun) seeds for teaching other, at times much less devastating, aspects of the Columbian Exchange—in particular, its impact on global consumption patterns, cuisine, and recipes. Corn was a fundamental food staple of indigenous peoples in the Americas, important enough to embody religious meaning to cultures like the Aztecs, who worshipped both maize god, Centeotl, and goddess, Chicomecoatl, seen in the statue below holding two maize ears.

Corn held very different symbolic meaning across the Atlantic. There, along with tobacco, palm trees, parrots, and representations of Native American bodies, corn became an iconographic symbol of  exoticism, often used in maps, paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.

SK-A-4254-2
Jacob van Campen, Still Life with a Bowl of Corn, Artichokes, Grapes and a Parrot 1645-1650), SK-A-4254-2, Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands

But “Indian corn,” like many other plants and animals that traversed the Atlantic after contact, ended up on tables in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well as in paintings and maps. What does teaching and learning about the Columbian Exchange look like if, to take but this single example,  we thought more deeply about corn? What were the long-term effects of food like corn crossing the Atlantic? What does following a plant like corn back and forth across the Atlantic tell us about changing tastes in Europe and Asia, about the ability of Native Americans and Africans to retain cultural heritage through culinary techniques and ingredient choices, and about the hybrid food practices of new, creole cultures established in the Americas and Caribbean?

Students read anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s fascinating book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985) in my class. So they are well aware of the often devastating but always transformative effects of people’s desire to consume and produce an edible commodity like sugar. But the histories of life and labor on an eighteenth-century Jamaican sugar plantation can seem, like the  histories of Native Americans, French, and English in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, very far away. What would letting students look at Atlantic World history through a more personally meaningful lens do to their understanding of these faraway histories of contact and exchange? What would choosing recipes they love that are based on food that migrated transatlantically tell students not only about the past, but also about their own families and tastes? How would it illuminate the theoretical concept of creolization?

What would happen, in short, if students researched “Recipes of the Columbian Exchange”?

Recipe for the Assignment:

Choose a recipe. Although not necessary, you might want to choose one that has personal meaning to you or your tastebuds.

The only criteria to be met are that:

1) the recipe MUST be one that would not exist were it not for the Columbian Exchange and

2) it must be a recipe, with more than one ingredient

First, describe the recipe. List its ingredients, identify its name, and provide information on how it’s cooked.

Second, go into more analytical and historical detail about it. What are the environmental origins of its ingredients? Which ones are those we can trace to the Columbian Exchange? Who first made it? And where? Why is the recipe important to you? What does it tell us about the contact between peoples and the exchanges of things that characterized Atlantic World history?

Tune in tomorrow to hear students chime in on what they learned by using recipes to think about Atlantic World history.

[1] Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel E. Morison (new York: Knopf, 1952), 271.