Diorama Illustrates Food Heritage in Aztec Market

by AMNH on

On Exhibit posts

Many of the treats associated with the holiday season—from roast turkey to hot chocolate—had not been tasted outside of the Americas before the early 1500s.

The exhibition Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture features a walk-through diorama depicting a bustling food market in the capital city of the Aztec Empire, in what's now Mexico. Set in the year 1519, the market gathered foods from all over the empire. 

Aztec Market
The Tlatelolco market was vast and well organized, with rows of merchandise arranged in separate sections. 
© AMNH/R. Mickens

At the time diorama is set, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés was about to enter the city for the first time, setting off an explosion of cultural exchange that would bring exciting new foods—including the birds we now associate with American Thanksgiving, as well as chocolate—to Europe, Asia, and Africa—and introduce others to the Americas.  

Aztec market diorama, Our Global Kitchen
A bustling food market set in the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s is depicted in a diorama in the new food exhibition Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture. Among the foods sold there were domesticated turkeys.
© AMNH/D. Finnin

What were some other foods sold at the Aztec Market? Though wild game, turkeys, fish, frogs, salamanders, iguanas, insects, insect eggs, and larvae could all be found in the great marketplace of Tlatelolco, in what is now Mexico City, the majority of foods for sale were plant-based; they included chayote, chile peppers, maize, and squashes.

Foods in Aztec Market
From top left, chayote, tamales, squash, chile peppers, and maize (or corn), in the Aztec market diorama in Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture. 
© AMNH/R. Mickens

The people living there had already bred many varieties of tomatoes, and they also used many parts of squash plants, from fruits to blossoms.

Squash blossoms Aztec Market
Green tomatoes and squash blossoms.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

As for domesticated turkeys, starting in the early 1500s, explorers shipped them to Europe from North and Central America; especially in England, they quickly became a popular food for feast days, such as Christmas. But in Plymouth Colony in 1621, on the first official "Thanksgiving" celebrated there, English pilgrims didn't eat domesticated turkeys; according to documents from the time, they ate only wild fowl, perhaps including wild turkeys, but more likely wild ducks or geese. 

Enjoy your Thanksgiving; to find out more about food heritage of southern North America, visit the Aztec Market in Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture, now open.

The exclusive corporate sponsor for Our Global Kitchen is J. P. Morgan.

Additional support for Our Global Kitchen and its related educational and online resources has been provided by GRACE Communications Foundation. The Kitchen Experience is presented by Whole Foods.