Mexican Chili Corpses

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It is common for plants to develop unpalatable or toxic characteristics to deter herbivorous predators. It is also not uncommon for some herbivores to not only develop resistance to the aversive qualities, but also to sequester the aversive compounds themselves, so as to become unpalatable to their own predators. The classic example is the monarch butterfly, whose caterpillar feeds on toxic milkweed, which renders the butterfly toxic to birds. (the birds rapidly learn to avoid orange and black butterflies).

Garcia (in Food Aversion Learning) refers to an old piece of Mexican American folklore given a macabre example of dietary-induced aversive properties. This story was presumably propagated by the European Americans as a critique of the Mexicans. Garcia refers to an unpublished manuscript by Raymund Paredes, which I have not been able to locate. I have found a couple of other early sources.

From an account of the Franco-Mexican war in Native Races of the Pacific States of North America, by H.H. Bancroft (1882), vol ii. (as cited by Davison in the Oxford Companion to Food).

This pungent condiment (chili) is at present fay as omnipresent in Spanish American dishes as it was at the time of the conquest; and I am seriously informed by a Spansih gentleman who resided for many years in Mexico and was an officer in Maximillian's army, that while the wolves would feed upon the dead bodies of the French that lay all night upon the battlefield, the never touched the bodies of the Mexicans, because the flesh was completely impregnated with chile. Which, if true, may be thought to show that wolves do not object to a diet seasoned with garlic.

From a cowboy detective autobiography, Riata and Spurs by Charles Angelo Siringo (2007), p. 55

Every morning and evening l had to ride past a plumthicket, which was a few miles west of our camp. at the edge of which lay the bodies of three murdered Mexican buffalo hunters. They were badly swollen, and the sight of them made me nervous. Strange to relate these corpses were never devoured by the many lobos and coyotes around them. This fact convinces me that there is truth in the theory that wolves won't eat a dead Mexican ~ possibly on account of his system being impregnated with chill (red peppers). A short time previous, these three man were murdered by Nelson and three companions, in order to get their ox-teams to haul buffalo hides to Dodge City, Kansas. These murderers were never arrested, as there was no law in the country -- and not a law officer nearer than Fort Elliot.

From P.F. Kelly, Death in Mexican Folk Culture, American Quarterly, 26 (1974) 516-535

It is difficult to choose from among the many traditions related with the idea of death those which represent most clearly the typical conoeptions that prevail in Mexico. It has often been said that in this country people deal with death sacrilegiously, mocking it as if it were something which deserved to be treated with humors Whether this view is accurate or exaggerated, it seems clear that death is often the main protagonist in many ofthe folkloric festivities. Among these none are as well known or as impressive as the celebrations that take place in commemoration of All Souls` Day: the day of the dead.

In Mexico this date is surrounded by a variety of activities which begin with the preparation of specific kinds of food: one of these, "calabaza en tacha," is a preserve made by combining small pieces of pumpkin with sticks of sugarcane. haws. aromatic spices and a peculiar brown sugar called "piloncilIo." There is also the so-called "pan de muerto" or bread of the dead consisting of loaves prepared with wheat hour and decorated with stylized bones and tears of the same dough. To these are added a remarkable variety of meals spiced with chili and vegetables typical of each region, placed in bowls and dishes made of black ceramic as a sign of mourning. Among the special sweets which are produced only for this occasion are the famous ucalaveras de azticar," an amazing ensemble of human skulls of all sizes and shapes, made in sugar, decorated with colorful paper and labeled with an assortment of names. Mien looking at them in the showcases of the sweet shops one cannot help recalling the ancient Aztec tzornpantlis, special stone structures where the skulls ofthe men who had died in sacrifice were exhibited. In our times it is an All Souls` Day custom to purchase one of these sugar sculptures labeled with the name of the buyer or with the name of a friend; these are then given as gifts to he eaten, an act that often puzzles those who are not acquainted with ancient Mexican traditions,