Gustavo Corral

Eating and reproduction are crucial biological processes that are fraught with emotional meanings, which is perhaps why the symbolic relationship between them is so significant. In The Savage Mind (1962), anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss highlights the importance of copulation and eating in the shaping of the structures through which the system of signification of a given culture is created. In Lévi-Strauss’s line of thinking, practices around food and sex do not only reflect some natural state, but they are also subject to the dominant belief system of a society.

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Image of Mayahuel, Goddess of Agave. (Wikimedia Commons).

In Mexico, food and sex have been closely tied since pre-Hispanic times, but has the logic guiding the allocation of meaning to this relationship always been the same? This essay will first look at how prior to the Spanish conquest, for Mesoamerican indigenous groups, the meanings were filled with legendary and allegorical connotations. Second, this piece will show that the Christian beliefs imposed by Spanish colonizers and the interlacing of indigenous ideas with those of the Europeans, changed those meanings for contemporary Mexican society. In sum, this case study will demonstrate that this connection between food and sex is not immutable, but rather changes its meaning over time according to the religious, political, and social context.

The chile in particular had a special place in the sexual cosmology of indigenous groups. The linkage of the chile with eroticism and the penis can be found in the writings of the early Spanish chroniclers. Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, for example, in his General History of the Things of New Spain, compiled between 1540 and 1585, narrates a Toltec myth that explains how the God Tezcatlipoca became the son-in-law of Huémac, king of Toltecs. Legend has it that the deity took the form of a Tohuenyo, one of the names given by the Toltecs to the inhabitants of the Huasteca, who were prone to nudity and sexual openness. He began to sell chile at the market and he managed to court the daughter of Huémac by exposing his genitals. On seeing the naked Tohuenyo, the princess felt a sudden desire for his penis. In his version of the story, Sahagún depicts her sexual longing as an actual illness, persistent fever due to lovesickness, rather than an intense libido. Anxious to heal her, Huémac forced the Tohuenyo to cure his daughter and marry her. Tezcatlipoca thus gained access to power as a member of the ruling family. This story tells us a lot about the sexual liberality of some pre-Hispanic cultures, such as the Huastecos, compared with the Toltecs’ greater reserve. Moreover, the similarity between the shape of the naked phallus and the chile also suggest male virility and lust.

Among Aztecs, the linkage of the chile with sexuality can even be found in the space of the divine. According to Sahagún, during celebrations for Xochipilli, Lord of Flowers, men and women taking part in the ritual fasted for four days and refrained both from eating chile and from sexual intercourse. Those who dirtied their fast with sexual activity were punished by the God with diseases “in their secret parts.” Furthermore, Aztecs considered the chile an aphrodisiac, because of both its morphology and its characteristic heat sensation. For this reason they related it to Tlazoltéotl, Goddess of lust and adultery, which is an indication of the connection with fleshly appetites attributed by the pre-Hispanic people to the chile.

Aztec imagination provides more references highlighting the aphrodisiac qualities of food, which indicate that fertility was a great concern for them. After all, group survival depended on the fertilisation of the land they cultivated and the women of the society. The word avocado comes from the Náhuatl ahuacatl, meaning testicle, because these fruits hang on the tree in pairs and resemble this part of the male body. Since before colonization, avocados have been related to increased virility or manhood.

All three of the examples listed above indicate how, before the Spanish colonized Mexico, the relation between sex and food was in accordance with Mesoamerican indigenous worldviews: ritual fasts, sexual self-sacrifices, and aphrodisiac food served to enhance sexual potency. Pre-Hispanic cultures related earthly pleasures such as sex and eating with the divine, making their connection a natural and important part of the communities’ rites to receive the gods’ favour. But such a relation ceased to be explicit after the sexual and moral oppression imposed by the Spanish Catholic Church and the colonial government. From then on, those earthly pleasures were disguised within albures, plays on words and double meanings that used food as a vehicle for the expression of sexual desire.

After colonization, Mexican puns reduced the common denominator of sexual and alimentary relations to the minimum. The resulting metaphors were used as a resource to escape from sexual repression and censorship of the Catholic Church. During colonial times, figurative expressions, a product of the Aztec double entendre, were combined with Spanish linguistic mischief, giving rise to typical Mexican albures. Tortillas and tamales, generally made out of corn dough and undoubtedly part of Mexican identity, had strong sexual connotations. Esther Katz points out that in the Oaxacan Mixtec region, both tamales and tortillas represent the female sexual organ and fertility. In the Nahua culture, the sexual connotation of tamales is made explicit verbally. The image of the tamale usually symbolizes the woman in the sexual act, inspiring expressions such as xiquitta cenca cualli notamal, which is literally translated as “look, our tamale is very good,” but actually means something like “look, that woman is so hot.” Culinary albures, such as “melting the mollete,” “stuffing the turkey,” or “sweetening the churro” constitute an example of the “semantic impoverishment” that Lévi-Strauss uses to explain the universality of the homology between copulation and eating. But, in this case, they also illustrate the shift in the meaning of this linkage that became evident after conquest.

These histories have left residues in contemporary representations of Mexican food and sexuality. Laura Esquivel’s novel Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) (1989) provides another current case where the metaphorical association of eating and sexuality is used as a symbolic means of blurring the boundaries between what is allowed and what is prohibited. One of the most significant elements of the novel is the recurring use of this metaphor by Tita, the main character, as a means to defy her obligations as the youngest daughter. She has to take care of her mother until her death and she’s prohibited from marrying Pedro, the love of her life.

The passage from the book where Tita cooks a pre-Hispanic recipe (quails with rose petals sauce) illustrates very well the intense excitement that her dishes produce in Pedro. With her quails, Esquivel writes, Tita “penetrated Pedro’s body, hot, voluptuous, aromatic, totally sensuous.” The food is the medium through which Tita establishes a sexual relation with Pedro, or in words of Esquivel, a “singular sexual message.” Just as the albur is an encoded language with sexual allusions that not everybody understands, Tita’s dishes can be considered a secret code between her and Pedro, impenetrable to outsiders.

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Cover of Laura Esquivel’s book Like Water for Chocolate (Suma de letras, 2012)

The picture of female sexuality in the story of the Toltec princess’s desire for Tezcatlipoca is very different from the one of Tita’s longing for Pedro. In the first, the naked Tohuenyo chile vendor is a testimony of the open sexuality in many of the pre-Hispanic indigenous groups. In the second, Tita penetrates Pedro through the dishes she prepares, expressing her forbidden love and achieving pleasure. Ingredients carry over from past to present, but the flavours have changed over time.


CorralGustavo Corral (Ph.D. History of Science, Autonomous University of Barcelona, 2015) studies the history of science museums and their relations with the public understanding of science and technology in Europe between 1970 and 1985. His doctoral thesis, El Nuevo Esquema Expositivo del Museo de Historia Natural de Londres, 1968-1981. Una Perspectiva Histórica focused on the new exhibitional regime at the Natural History Museum in London in the mid-1970s. He is also interested in exploring the complex and changing relationships between state, economy, society and industry, and their effect on the transition in museum discourse.

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