Like any other emperor or king, Montezuma II of the Aztec Empire relished any chance to throw a great banquet. When Hernán Cortés and his Spanish explorers arrived in Montezuma’s capital city of Tenochtitlan, they witnessed a few of these feasts and they later described the experience in their letters and memoirs. In particular, Cortés made note of Montezuma’s banquets in a letter to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (r. 1519-1556), and the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo (c. 1492-1580) also recounted Montezuma’s mealtime festivities in his own memoir-history, The Conquest of New Spain.
According to Hernán Cortés, Montezuma’s feasts could be an all-day affair, lasting from morning until nightfall. Around 600 prominent Aztec nobles could be expected to attend such banquets, and each noble had servants or attendants that also came along. The nobles were admitted into the interior of the palace or villa where the main feast was held, but the servants were restricted to adjacent courtyards. Both master and servant, however, would be fed from the emperor’s larder during the course of the event.
Produce and game from all over the Aztec empire was apparently showcased at the emperor’s banquets. Hernán Cortés did not dare to attempt a list of the great variety of foods he witnessed on Montezuma’s tables, but he did state that anything that was able to be hunted, fished or grown in the Aztec territory was served during the event. Bernal Díaz, for his part, did attempt to list some of the foods served at the feasts, but he restricted himself to only commenting on the variety of meat: “every day they cooked fowls, turkeys, local partridges, quail, tame and wild duck, venison, boar, marsh birds, pigeons, hares and rabbits, also many other kinds of birds and beasts native to their country, so numerous that I cannot quickly name them all” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 91).
Before meals were served, servants would reportedly bring out basins of water, so that the emperor and his guests could wash their hands. According to Hernán Cortés there were between 300 and 400 youthful waiters in charge of distributing food and drink. Bernal Díaz, in his own description of the servants, observed that almost all of Montezuma’s personal waiters were beautiful women. After hands had been washed, the food and drink were served—all presented (at least to Montezuma) on red and black pottery from the city of Cholula. At each banquet, Montezuma was reportedly served 30 personal dishes, which were heated to specific temperatures by means of coals. Bernal Díaz further alleged that Montezuma would personally drink from around 50 jugs of frothy hot chocolate brought to him during the course of one of his feasts, and that he would smoke from three tubes filled with a tobacco mixture. As for what was served to the emperor’s guests, the beleaguered kitchen staff was reportedly expected to produce a staggering 1,000 dishes of food and 2,000 jugs of chocolate, or other such drinks.
When it came time to dine, a screen was brought out to give the emperor some privacy. Only the most trusted of the emperor’s kinsmen (and the beautiful servant women) could be with the emperor behind the screen. While the emperor enjoyed his momentary solace, the rest of the guests were left in good hands—Montezuma’s feasts were livened by professional entertainers of all sorts. Singers, dancers, musicians, jesters, comedians, acrobats, stilt-walkers and side-show attractions were actively brought to live in Tenochtitlan, and the emperor had these entertainers perform during the feasts.
When the revelers were finished with their meals, servants once more brought out basins of water so that everyone could wash up. As the guests left, they likely yearned eagerly for their next invitation to one of the emperor’s feasts, which, no doubt to the horror of the kitchen staff, apparently occurred frequently.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Print depicting Montezuma II greeting Hernan Cortes, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.