During the last three weeks, I capitalized on an opportunity to travel to two different areas of Belize in order to learn about the Mayan collapse through a short three-week class offered by USC’s Problems Without Passports program. While I did learn the standard class objectives through the various activities on the trip itinerary, I also found that I learned just as much about Mayan and Belizean life through the food I ate.
Most of what I learned was through the time I spent in the Toledo District of Southern Belize. Based on what I saw and subsisted off of during my stay, I’ve reached three overarching conclusions.
1. Coleslaw is a mealtime staple (during lunch and dinner).
2. Chicken is just as common as coleslaw.
3. Rice and beans complete the meal, if not tortillas. Or both.
All three components often come together during lunch or dinners to compose a hearty and tasty plateful. While I can’t say that chicken, rice and beans, and coleslaw make up a specific meal within Belize, I did encounter multiple iterations of the combination throughout my trip, whether in different restaurants or in local villages. To take it even further, signs for nearly every restaurant boasting that it served authentic Belizean food had chicken, rice, and beans written on the outdoor menu. It was common enough for me to think that if any meal could be considered characteristic of Belize… chicken, rice, and beans (with a side of coleslaw) would be it.
While seemingly universal across Belize, the preparation of the chicken generally varies on the ethnic background of the person preparing it. Due to ubiquitousness, I also overheard people begging for “anything other than chicken, rice, and beans” at the airport. To which I can confirm: Yes, you can always have much of a good thing.
Tortillas are another common component of Belizean meals. You can find tortillas in both flour and corn form, but corn tortillas are traditionally more significant, since corn was and continues to be a Mayan staple crop. Since Mayans live a subsistence-based lifestyle, the corn they grow is mostly used to provide food for themselves, as opposed to being sold for industrial uses.
Two uniquely Belizean foods I encountered were fry-jacks and freshwater snails. Fry-jacks, as the name suggests, are pieces of fried dough that are commonly served as breakfast items, with toppings such as honey or beans. There’s not too much to say about them, besides noting their immense popularity.
On the other hand, my encounter with freshwater snails didn’t involve me eating them but rather, foraging for them. If you can consider finding something in nature as foraging (no matter how easy it was to find it) then yes – I foraged. But to be entirely truthful, foraging for the snails consisted of a Mayan guide picking live snails in their shells straight out of a creek and explaining their role in Mayan meals. Not only are the snails eaten for meat, but their shells are also processed into lime, which is then used to process corn to make tortillas. Corn and snails seem like an unlikely combination but under subsistence-based living, being resourceful is a necessity and can lead to a delicious end result.
In rural Belize, food is more of a labor of necessity than it is in America — where we can view it as a pastime or art, as well as a means of sustenance. Within the Mayan villages, I highly doubt that meals for one are a common phenomenon. Meal time is when you slaughter a whole chicken (one of the many freely roaming the front of your thatched-roof home) and cook a family-sized meal in one pot. You also won’t find any warehouse-sized supermarkets in Belize and likewise, due to their less diverse offerings, the meals are less varied than they are in the US, where you might have Italian-inspired food one day and Asian-inspired dishes the next day.
That being said, one of my favorite aspects of food is how it brings people together and how it reflects the cultural foundations of a population. And after sweating through humid jungle treks during the day, the mouthfuls of food from my plate piled high with Belizean dinner gave me a bigger appreciation for the labor that is directed into creating something simple.