In archaeological excavations of the San Francisco and Guadalupe mountains in the northern part of our state, traces of plants were found that were an important part of the diet of the inhabitants of the Baja California Sur peninsula.
For their sheer number, the remains of mezcal (agave) stand out. The mezcal was roasted before being consumed. These roasted or mezcal tatemados are mentioned in the records of the missionary colonization. Upon arrival from his overland trip from Loreto to La Paz, Father Guillen tells us that the journey had taken a long time and exhausted their supplies. As a result, they had to eat the roasted hearts of mezcal offered them by the Guaycuras, and that the food was to his liking.
I can attest that mezcal was the food base for both indigenous communities during the missionary period and prior to the success of farming and ranching. Its consumption was disseminated with the mining boom of Santa Rosalia, including distilling the juice of tatemados mezcal hearts to make liquor.
On the other hand, consumption of pitahayas, both sweet in the summer and sour in the fall, was very popular among rural communities. In some ranches, the tradition of making jams and jellies from the cooked pitahaya pulp continues. Some ranchers go through the trouble of extracting all the small seeds to make a better product.
From the Jesuit missionary period of 1697-1767, we have countless documents of pitahayas harvests by different indigenous groups. There are two references made by Father Miguel del Barco in his book the Natural History and Record of Old California. The first describes how Pericúes women in the south would make a kind of conserve inside baskets called “coritas” where mezcal tatemado was mixed with sour fruit pitahayas. The second, refers to the main festival of the Guaycuras and how they would celebrate the harvest season for sweet pitahayas. Bands from different regions would gather for different activities, conduct archery tournaments and perform sketches by people of all ages, including the little ones.
Many of the plants consumed by the indigenous people and the procedures used to collect them were taught to the colonists. This can be seen in the magnificent paintings of Father Ignacio Tirsh. In one painting, a group of women from the Mission of Santiago can be seen in the mountains collecting pitahayas with a bichutas (a long reed with a spatula and a punch at one end to lower the fruit) and baskets.
It is very common to find archaeological remains such as grinding stones in the mountains of the peninsula. The stones were extremely important for food processing and their analysis has helped us learn more about the pre-Hispanic diet. Unfortunately, we have found no trace of the famous coritas, which were fundamental utensils the Pericues used for collecting food. These baskets of woven palms also served as water containers. Hot stones were often added to the water and the baskets used for cooking.
With regard to the preparation of food from animals, we have a drawing from Father Tirsh of two Pericues hunters apparently located in a canyon of the Sierra de La Laguna. They are about to roast the flesh of a deer. This picture helped me interpret an archaeological vestige that was discovered in the canyon between San Pedro and San Pablo, near Caduaño. It consisted of an array of regular sized stones in the form of plates, embedded with iron and about two meters around. The plates contained a great deal of ash. The stone plates could have served as indigenous grills. That is, after the burning wood on the stone turned to hot coals, it became a sizzling platter. When I experimented with this process and put venison on the plate, it was cooked to perfection without any pan.
Archaeological sites on the coast, called Concheros by experts, show a variety of species that contributed to the diet of Californians. The remnants are mainly fish and shellfish and, in some cases, marine mammals.
Historical sources help us understand how resources were exploited. In the notes of Father Miguel del Barco, he writes that the natives would go to the coast to dive for mollusks, which they salted and dried in the sun. The mollusks were subsequently strung on a mezcal spike forming a sort of necklace that they took back to their villages to feed the people.
The base of today’s regional food can be traced back to the introduction of agriculture and livestock by missionaries in the late seventeenth century. The weather and finding species that could grow in the region, such as the date palm, olive and fig trees, were key elements to the development of food sources.
Similarly, the workers that helped the missionaries, such as cowboys and Hispanic farmers, introduced dried meat and assisted in the development of delicious regional cheeses, both goat and cow. Machaca, grapes, wheat, sugarcane, onions, beans, and other crops were also cultivated. The harvests allowed the settlers to make bread, wine, brown sugar, and a product of cultural exchange, the flour tortilla. Farmers from the opposite coast with a pre-Hispanic past, introduced corn, beans, squash, tomatoes and chili; the ingredients from which the flavors of traditional Mexican food was derived.
As a third factor, we must consider the origin of the ships that supplied the missions or made seasonal stops at the ports. For example, the mission of San Jose del Cabo was also an important port and refueling point for the Nao of China or the Manila Galleons. From this trade, mangos were introduced to a vast region of Mexico. In addition to mangos, the ships brought dried apricots, tamarind, Chinese Granada, and, most likely, several species of citrus that were important in combating the scurvy that was common among the sailors of that era. The ships also brought the rare pomelo, a fruit related to the grapefruit, which is used for the famous sweet Pomela.
Although ranchers consume less and less baked mezcal, a couple of friends, Darío Higuera from “El Jaralito” ranch and Franco Cota from “Las Casas Viejas” in the La Zorra Canyon and Memo Bastida of San Javier, helped me recreate the process.
A hole is dug into the ground and lined with stones. A fire is made with plenty of wood and the flames heat the stones. When the fire is out, the hearts of several mezcal are placed in the hole and covered with palm leaves or foil, leaving a space between the mezcal and the surface. It is then covered airtight with earth. If it is not airtight, the mezcal hearts will turn to pieces of coal. That is exactly what happened on my first attempt. I still remember the laughter from my colleagues. After 24 hours, the oven is uncovered and the mezcal hearts are allowed to cool. They are consumed in the same way that sugar cane is chewed.
Miguel del Barco recorded plants that were considered dangerous but proved to be profitable.
The Caribe (Cnidoscolus angustidens) is a stinging herb. However, the dried seeds are edible by themselves, on toast or brewed as a beverage.
The cacachila (Karwinsquia humboldtiana) is a toxic woody shrub with evergreen leaves and fruit the color of ripe coffee berries. Father del Barco warned the Pericue women that if they ate the plant they would be paralyzed and die. The women replied that the seed was posionous but not the flesh of the fruit. By removing the seed, they could use the fruit to make candy.