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History of Pozole: A Tale of Celebration & Sacrifice

Photo for Aztec origins of Pozole

Do you know the dark historia of this beloved Mexican soup?

Pozole is a hearty, thick soup made with pork, hominy, garlic and chiles. It’s a beloved traditional dish in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, if we keep things súper official and go by Merriam-Webster.

But if you’re at all familiar with the Sunday morning cruda that follows a quince, baptism, wedding or everyday-casual family kickback, you’ll know that pozole is less food and more magical elixir for hangovers and too much fun. 

Also: Are you aware of its not-so-savory history? Grab yourself a bowl, and get to know the complex origins of one Mexico’s oldest dishes.

The History, Roots & Rituals of Pozole

Pozole comes from the Nahuatl word pozolli, or posolli, which in English translates to a stew of maíz kernels, according to the Nahuatl Dictionary by the Wired Humanities Projects at the University of Oregon.

Today, you can find a bowl of pozole at many carnicerias or familias’ tables, but it was originally regarded as a meal for the privileged elite of the Aztec empire. A bit similarly to how it’s served today, the dish was often made for special occasions.

For the Mexicas, the Nahuatl-speaking indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who were the rulers of the Aztec Empire, these pozole occasions were to celebrate:  gods, good harvests and changing seasons.

In honor of Tláloc, the god of rain and rain deities, Aztecs held a festival during February and March known as Atlcahualo—to usher in the rain needed for planting. Soon after Atlcahualo came the feast of Tlacaxipehualiztli , celebrating the year’s harvest and commemorating how the Mexica obtained and inherited corn from the Toltecs. 

“The pre-colonial form of pozole, which combined human flesh and the white cacahuazintle corn associated with Iztacmizcóatl, the White Cloud Serpent, was meaningful to the Aztecs, both culturally and ritualistically.”

During Tlacaxipehualiztli every spring, the year’s harvest was sown and ears of corn were offered to Xipe Tótec, “the god of the renewal of vegetation in the spring (i.e., as a fertility figure), as a god of liberation (i.e., particularly, as a penitential figure), as the central figure in a cult of ‘trophy skins,’ … even as a phallic god,” wrote history and phenomenology professor Franke J. Neumann in a 1976 paper: “The Flayed God and His Rattle-Stick: A Shamanic Element in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican Religion.”

But while the festivities were meant to be celebratory, they were also gruesome. Human sacrifices were part of the rituals to appease the god. 

Mask Aztec Mexico pozole photo
A Mixtec-Aztec mask from the 15th-16th century. Wonder if this guy ate pre-Hispanic pozole?

Pozole in Aztec History

The dish we know and love today was first documented by a 16th-century Spanish Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529. In his Florentine Codex: General History of the Matters of New Spain, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún documented the rituals, daily life and culture of the Aztec people. Not to learn about who they were and how they lived, but to better understand how to undermine their gods and, ultimately, convert the indigenous people to Christianity. 

One of the topics he wrote about was the precursor of pozole. Today we enjoy pozole with chicken or pork, but the pre-colonial recipe featured something a little different. 

The dish Sahagun wrote about was called tlacatlaolli, which he described as “a maize stew fed to the captor and his family at the time when they would also be eating a piece of the flesh of the captive after his heart was removed for offering to the deities.”

That’s right: here’s where we start to get to human sacrifice.

But first, during pre-colonial times, the meat of choice for non-ceremonial pozole was a rodent called tepezcuintle—not xoloitzcuintle, a breed of dog commonly mistaken as the soup’s protein, or itzcuintlis, a dog often used in Mexica cuisine in the 1500s and 1600s—according to research by the Gobierno de México.

A second choice of protein for early pozole is a bit more familiar—and gory: human. Research shows that during this time, human flesh was consumed as part of special rituals. The remains were chopped and cooked with maíz, and the meal was shared as part of religious communion. 

The pre-colonial form of pozole, which combined human flesh and the white cacahuazintle corn associated with Iztacmizcóatl, the White Cloud Serpent, was meaningful to the Aztecs, both culturally and ritualistically. The soup symbolized “the rite where the permanent duality of the Nahua’s mystical vision was verified: origin and end, heaven and earth, day and night, symbolized in many ways in his arts, in his philosophy and in his rites: Quetzalcóatl who crawls- flies with the serpent-eagle, in his earthly-divine condition,” writes Alfonso de Jesús Jiménez Martínez in his “Retrieving Meanings: The Ritual Meaning of Pozole in Aztec Society.”

Cannibalism was banned, according to the academic, after the Spanish conquest, and pork became the staple meat because it tasted very similar [to human flesh]. (Makes you feel a bit differently about pork, doesn’t it?)

Today, with the exception of one big thing (starts with human, ends with sacrifice), the ritual of eating pozole 500 years ago is pretty similar to how we enjoy the dish today. Whether you prefer pozole rojo, verde, blanco or whichever of the other 20 variants of pozole, the pre-colonial ritual celebrated by the Aztec empire is one that has lasted conquest, assimilation and religious oppression: We gather, we celebrate, we eat. 

Photos: David Monte, Max Letek

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