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What is Posole?

A string of visitors have graced my doorstep the past few months and as I’ve lead them through the delights of northern New Mexico cuisine one question comes up again and again.

What is posole?

Well, it all starts way back in the way-back when the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl made man out of corn – more exact, God made humans from masa or cornmeal dough.  As a result, corn took on a deeply religious significance for the Aztec.  Corn was to the people of central Mexico what rice is to many Asian societies and what wheat is to Europeans. It was a vital staple that allowed people to live and thrive. The Aztec people consumed corn as tortillas, as tamales and as the corn gruel ātōlli. Beans salt and chile were the other vital components of an Aztec meal, offering a well-rounded and nutritional food base.

Quetzalcoatl. From the Magliabechiano Codex

Pozolli (the original Nahuatl word meaning “foamy” or “frothy”) developed as the ritual meal and symbol that celebrated the creation of humanity from corn.

In the “General History of Things from New Spain” (pdf) Fray Bernardino de Sahagun mentioned that during the festivities to honor the god Xipe, the Emperor was served a massive dish of pozolli – crowned with the thigh of a sacrificed prisoner.

That’s right.

The Aztec pozolli recipe called for hominy (dried corn kernels from the sacred cacahuazintle variety nixtamalized with alkali) and the chopped up bodies of prisoners that had had their hearts torn out in ritual sacrifice.

Curiously, chile was left out of the stew.

This was the tlacatlaolli … “a sacred meal of sacrificed human meat, cooked with corn”.

Otherwise known as “man corn”.

The nixtamalization procedure (soaking the corn kernels in water with lime or wood ash) is vital in the production of the hominy-corn and is actually a critical process in the consumption of corn in general because it releases a multitude of important nutrients that are not otherwise accessible.

Dried Maize Mote from Oazaca.

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire cannibalism was banned (although burning people at the stake was not).  Pork replaced human meat in pozolli then because la carne humana “sabía como la del cerdo”. In other words because “it tasted similar”.

….speaking of the other white meat….

So although the basic ingredients thankfully changed, the corn remained as the main component of the dish.

Corn came north from Mexico and into the Rio Grande valley of what is now New Mexico thousands of years ago but pozolli probably didn’t arrive until it came with the Spanish under Oñate at the end of the 1500s.  That said, some archaeologists feel that some central Mexican group may have actually brought the practice of “man corn” north to terrorize the Ancestral Puebloan peoples of Chaco Canyon sometime in the 1200-1300s.

That is a topic that remains hotly debated.

Cutting the tomatillos for my own posole

What is not debated that the Hispanic and Puebloan cultures of New Mexico took the posole and made it their own, endowing it with a life-affirming significance.  Posole is consumed all year long here in northern New Mexico but it is particularly important (along with tamales, biscochitos and empanadas) at Christmas time.

Posole a la Jim O’Donnell – really freaking good

Intrigued? Come on out to New Mexico and try our food.

Barring that, be sure to try my recipe for Green Chile Chicken Posole.

I left out the Man Corn.

Promise. No, really.


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