Monday, February 21, 2011

El Nopal, the Miracle Plant

Mexico is probably the only country in the world which features one of its healthiest plants in its national emblem. We all know the ubiquitous image of an eagle with a snake in its beak, wings still spread wide and ready to land on a nopal, the cactus indigenous to the New World. Its name comes from the nahualtl word nopalli.
The eagle seems to be landing on this inhospitable plant with its sharp needle like thorns with ease as if it would be the most comfortable place to devour its catch. What made the ancient inhabitants of Mexico think the plant was good to eat? Desperate need for food in a barren environment, ancient wisdom, instinct or some higher connection? We will probably never know. We do know that the nopal has been cultivated for millenniums and treasured as a special gift of nature. With modern science we have learned that the plant is a nutritional reservoir like no other plant for which the Aztecs, besides food and beverages, had many other uses as well. Building materials, fire wood, glue, stiffening cloth, strengthen mortar, fences and religious ceremonies. Diego Rivera famously mixed the colors for his murals with nopal sap. Dishes containing game eggs, wild meats, fish, seafood and the New World stables, without we can not imagine the culinary world today, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, chile and squash were prepared with nopal much in the same way we find today.
500 years after the Spanish conquest, what was once an amazingly healthy nation now sadly has one of the highest cases of diabetes and obesity in the world. To understand the full impact of this statement, consider this scenario: When Hernán Cortéz arrived in Tenochtitlan, what is now Mexico City in 1519 his crew of Spaniards were quite a sorry lot to look at. The long sea voyages without fresh food left them in a poor state of health. Plagued by chronic nutritional deficiency diseases had left them balding and nearly toothless. Personal hygiene, such as bathing or clean clothing was not something they practiced. And here they came face to face with a people that had shinny black hair, beautiful taut completions and a splendid set of teeth and high standards of personal hygiene that involve bathing at least daily. Their clothing was dyed in brilliant colors, many never seen before. When news of these very healthy people reached Spain’s, King Phillip, he dispatched his trusted personal physician, Dr. Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514-1587) to the New World to find out what was the special medicine that made these people so healthy. After 7 years of travels and documenting indigenous plants and foods with the help of his artist-traveling companion, Dr. Hernández concluded there was no medicine; it was the diet that made the people so healthy.

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