Heaven, whatever else it may have going for it, must surely smell of masa, that blessed gift from Mesoamerica to the rest of the world.
Nixtamalized corn–that is, corn that has been treated with lime to make it more digestible–is ground to make the flour used in making so many delicious foods and drinks: tamales, tortillas, pinol (or pinole), tostadas, sopes, gorditas, among others.
Before it’s ground as flour, though, the nixtamalized corn is what we in the English-speaking world usually refer to as hominy. In Mexico, it’s called either pozole (also spelled posole) or cacahuazintle (also spelled cacahuacintle), which refers most often to an heirloom variety of corn known for its large grains.
Fun fact: the “s” and the “z” are pronounced the same in Mexican Spanish, hence the multiple spelling options–and increased chances for spelling errors. Pozole seems to be the preferred spelling in Mexico proper, while posole shows up more often in borderlands recipes.
The words “posole” and “pozole” come, of course, from Nahuatl, the Uto-Aztecan language spoken in various forms from pre-Hispanic times until, well, now. Nahuatl is one of 68 indigenous languages recognized by the Mexican government; at around 2 million speakers, it is the second most commonly spoken language in Mexico after Spanish.
Our modern word pozole comes from the Nahuatl pozolli, which means “frothy” or “boiled.” The translation hints at the pre-Hispanic ritual origins of pozole as a dish made with the boiled flesh of human captives. There are accounts that suggest that these origins account for the popularity of pork in Mexican cuisine, as that meat is said to be an acceptable substitute for human flesh. I am skeptical, however, given that the ritual seems to have been limited to a relatively small group of pre-Hispanic nobles. In addition, pork is hugely popular in Spain–and really tasty, which seem to me to be more important factors in culinary acculturation.
(As I was reading about the origins of pozole, I couldn’t help but think of Carlos Fuentes’s classic meditation on the relationship between past and present in his short story “Chac Mool“; English translation available here.)
Ritual anthropophagy aside, pozole in contemporary Mexico is a beloved dish with multiple regional variations. It’s food for celebration and, much like tamales, it’s food that’s best prepared collectively.
As with the spelling variations, the dish varies from place to place: it’s often made with pork, but sometimes with chicken. Sometimes it’s pozole verde and sometimes posole rojo. And then there’s pozole blanco, a sort of middle way.
Faced with an abundance of green tomatoes and a few tomatillos left over from warmer garden days, my plan is to conscript them into a version of pozole verde, which should be an aromatic way to warm up the kitchen and utilize the remains of a roasted chicken from earlier in the week.
If all the talk of human sacrifice has put you off meat, here are other options for using up green tomatoes:
A note on hominy: Several of these recipes call for canned hominy, which is probably fine, I guess.
I buy dried hominy from Rancho Gordo. With his incomparable poetic wit and copywriting genius, Steve Sando describes the effects of cooking hominy as those of making your entire kitchen “smell like a glorious, delicious wet tortilla.”
I’m pretty sure the canned stuff doesn’t do that.
The header image was downloaded from this site but comes originally from the Florentine Codex, a treatise on the peoples of central Mexico prepared shortly after conquest by the Spanish under the direction of Fray Bernadino de Sahagún. He had evangelization in mind but carried out his work with the help of Nahua researchers. It is both fascinating and heartbreaking.