Dispatch Mexico City: Fresh Food from Chinampas to Your Table
Photos by David Cogswell
On my first day in Mexico City with Tia Stephanie Tours, our historian guide Alfredo explained how the Aztecs had started to build their capital city, Tenochtitlán, on a small island on Texcoco, a huge lake that occupied the site that is now Mexico City.
The Aztecs expanded their land area over the lake by creating bundles of earth called chinampas held together with a system of branches or slats. The chinampas were tied together to expand the city block by block. Eventually the floating gardens became connected to the lake floor by roots and underwater vegetation.
The day after Alfredo showed us the site of the Aztecs’ Great Temple, now an archaeological site in downtown Mexico City, Tia Stephanie Tours took us to a place where we could see what the original Aztec chinampas looked like, and where farmers are reviving some of the early Mesoamerican agricultural techniques on the extremely fertile earth of the chinampas.
Rise and Fall of the Aztecs
The Aztecs came to the area and began to build their settlement around 1325 A.D. Their population soon outgrew the island and they started to expand it using the chinampas. The technique not only allowed the Aztecs to make their island eight times bigger, the newly expanded land was excellent for agriculture.
When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first encountered the Aztec capital in the early 1500s, it was a flourishing city with a population of 150,000 and monumental pyramids that were used by the Aztecs for ceremonial purposes, such as human sacrifices, to feed human blood to the hungry god Acolnahuacatl. Tenochtitlán also had a sophisticated system of canals and causeways.
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But that was all to be destroyed by the Spanish. A series of events leading to an escalation of hostilities led to a Spanish siege and the virtual destruction of the Aztec city in 1525. The Spanish built their settlement over the ruins of the Aztec capital. Now Mexico City stands over layers of earlier civilization.
The Spanish colonists dug canals to drain the lake into rivers that ran to the sea. So Texcoco is no more, but there are places where the original chinampas can still be seen.
Back to the Future
We went to the UNESCO World Heritage site Xochimilco to take a boat ride along canals that look and function today very much like they did when the Aztecs first established them centuries ago. Xochimilco is one of Mexico City’s 16 boroughs, but when you are there, even though it is only a few minutes’ drive to the expressway it feels remote.
I was amazed by the harmonious balance in Mexico City between urban and natural elements. Though Mexico City is an urban center that houses 20 million people, you are never far from nature when you are there. Even the most concentrated urban centers of the city are rich with vegetation: trees, bushes, grasses, potted plants, cultivated medians, parks, roof gardens, wall gardens, every kind of garden.
On the drive toward Xochimilco, riding around the city on Periférico, the beltway that circles Mexico City, I saw trees practically everywhere among the buildings of the city. The city, it seems, is built among the trees, without entirely clearing the forest away. Nowhere did I see broad areas where the vegetation is banished and the earth is covered over with concrete, such as you see in Manhattan.
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I wondered if the Mexicans’ constant intimacy with the natural elements might have something to do with the calm equanimity that reigns in the city and the friendly demeanor of the residents. It’s impressive to me that any center of 20 million people can function at all, and Mexico City seemed well managed, at least what I experienced of it.
The Mexicans are such friendly people — not uptight, not aggressive, not easily set off. I did not have a single ugly encounter during my stay there. I never felt threatened or menaced or even rudely treated. I saw some waiters and service people pushed to the point that would have caused some to respond in anger, but the snap never happened. They seem to maintain their kind composure no matter what hits them.
Farm to Table
At Xochimilco we met Ricardo Rodrigo, the founder of De la Chinampa a tu Mesa, which basically means from farm to table.
Ricardo has set up a system by which he connects the farmers of the chinampas with buyers in the city. It provides the restaurants with farm-to-table fresh food and it provides a robust market and a livelihood for the farmers.
The farmers use ancient methods, which we would call organic because it is done without pesticides and chemicals. But the farmers don’t call it organic because it’s just the traditional way of cultivating food.
Ricardo took us for a ride through the canals and introduced us to one of the farmers he does business with. Three generations of the family were there in the field when we arrived, working with their hands in the soil.
We traveled on one of the chalupas, the colorful and extravagantly decorated boats that can be hired out by tourists and visitors as water taxis.
I saw about 20 chalupas offering their services there. They are rented out mostly by locals who use them for relaxing and partying. Since we were there as Friday night approached, we were able to observe some of the robust partying that takes place on the boats.
The chalupas are set up like dining cars with a table in the middle surrounded by chairs. The source of energy for locomotion was a young man punting, pushing the boat with a pole he planted in the floor of the shallow water.
While we traveled and talked we dined on some of the freshest produce I’ve ever had the good fortune of eating, lettuce, spinach, avocado, tomatoes, with some tasty quesadias, and fresh papaya juice spiked with Tehuana mezcal.
It was one of those experiences that was almost completely outside of my previous frame of reference. And it is one three-hour section of my life that I will not forget.
More by David Cogswell
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