Mexican X-plainer: Quesadilla

I grew up on the border between Texas and Tamaulipas, and in my Mexican American family, a quesadilla was a tortilla (more often flour than corn) folded in half, with cheese inside, usually grilled so the cheese melted (but as a teen I often microwaved them).

Quesadillas (from Hogarmania)

Like many folks living outside of Mexico City, I was surprised to learn that quesadilla doesn’t necessarily mean “a folded tortilla full of cheese” in the Mexican capital (and a few other southern spots), but just “a large folded tortilla with anything inside, grilled or fried so that tortilla and filling are heated simultaneously.”

Surprised, but not scandalized.

Quesadillas de seso (cow brains). From www.quesadillas.info

I mean, just think about the word’s origins. Where did the word “queso” come from?

Some five thousand years or so ago, Proto-Indo-European (the language that gave rise to Latin, German, Sanskrit, Greek, etc.) had a root, *kwat-, which meant “to ferment” or “become sour.” There was a suffixed variant form, ‘kwāt-so- (“fermented thing”) that evolved into the Classical Latin “cāseum,” cheese.

In Vulgar Latin, this became “caseu.” Metathesis gave caesu, then caisu, then queisu and finally “queso.” There are cognates, not just in Romance languages (Portuguese “queijo,” Galician “queixo”), but also other European tongues (like Irish “cáis”).

In Spanish, the suffix -ada can (among other uses) create feminine nouns with the basic meaning “containing or full of X” (X being whatever the root word is).

Examples:

  • canasta (basket) → canastada (basketful)
  • cuchara → cucharada (spoonful)
  • limón (lime) → limonada (limeade)

When you stick the -ada ending on “queso,” you get “quesada,” which in essence means “something full of / made with cheese.”

The -illa ending is a diminutive. So “quesadilla” is literally “a little thing made with cheese.”

So is that what the word originally meant? Let’s check the written record.

From the 1423 Arte cisoria, written by Don Enrique de Aragon, Marqués de Villena, we know that before the Conquest, Spain had quesadas, a sort of sweet cheese cake.

And Alfonso de Palencia’s 1490 Universal vocabulario en latín y en romance tells us of the “cheese empanadas we call quesadillas.” These appear to have been a little like modern empanadas, half-moon confections, made with cheese. To this day, in most Central American countries, that’s what quesadillas are — sweet pastries made with cheese.

Perhaps these are what poet Francisco Gómez de Quevedo meant when he wrote “tras quesadilla y roscón.”

But maybe he was talking about something sweeter.

The 1737 Dictionary of the Royal Academy of Spanish has two definitions for quesadilla: the cheese cake/empanada one … and “little cakes filled with syrup, preserves, or other stuff.”

Not, one assumes, cheese. So already we see quesadillas WITHOUT CHEESE.

Interesting.

In fact, these oddly-named cakes are still made today. Pablo Arreola Romero let me know that in Santa Ana Maya, Michoacán, there’s a sweet bread made with syrup and no cheese: the quesadilla.

Sweet quesadillas.

We call this semantic drift. Meanings change over time.

Okay. It’s clear that for several centuries “quesadilla” could mean cheese cake, cheese empanada, and sweet cake, especially in Spain.

But what about Mexico, given the importance of the tortilla in that country?

As far back as 1831 in the book Cocinero mexicano, we have evidence of another sort of non-queso quesadillas. The dough is rolled out into little tortillas, folded around random fillings, and fried — just as many quesadillas are still made in Mexico City. (Shout out to Fernando Galicia for this tidbit.)

And, in 1943, BOOM! The Boletín de la Academia Argentina de Letras gives us a definition of Mexican usage that will make all my friends and followers in CDMX (Mexico City) positively delighted.

Ready? ¿Listos?

Drum roll!

“Quesadilla, Méx. Tortillas de maíz que con queso y dobladas por la mitad. Se ponen en el comal, después de agregárseles azúcar o sal. También se hacen de flores de calabaza, de papas, etc. Las hay de carne o picadillo de pollo …”

All that mattered was the tortilla.

But there’s a little caveat!

“… pero, seguramente como recuerdo del nombre, suele ponérseles tajaditas de queso.”

So, though you didn’t HAVE to have cheese in a quesadilla, it was pretty common to add it even to a meat or potato or squash quesadilla.

Ultimately, as anyone following me knows, I’m a descriptive linguist.

In Mexico City, a quesadilla doesn’t have to have cheese (any more, at least).

Elsewhere, it will.

Kind of like going to Spain and ordering a tortilla. You’re going to get a sort of omelette.

Know the place you’re visiting, folks, sheesh.

I should add there are several things that annoy me about the ongoing debate among Mexicans and Mexican Americas as to the nature of quesadillas.

I hate

  • that every place in Mexico other than Mexico City is called “provincia.” I know this is “proper,” going back to colonial times. I know that most Latin American countries and Spain do it, too. The practice was adopted from France (there the contrast was between Paris and the rest of the small country). But the notion that Monterrey or Guadalajara are provincial (in the derogatory sense common in English and Spanish) is pretty insulting. And the tension it fosters is disgusting.
  • that residents of Mexico City (defeños, cedemexos, chilangos, whatever) and provincianos [sic] (norteños especially) have this really childish rivalry going on.
  • the insipid meme that (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) claims that “quesadilla” is of Nahuatl origin. No. There is absolutely no connection between the Aztecs and quesadillas. The only thing the Aztecs ever called folded tortillas with food in them was “ tlaxcalpachōlli.” Just literally “folded tortillas.”

So folks from Mexico City? Call tacos whatever you want. Quesadillas. Empanadas. Extraterrestres. But don’t mock the rest of us for our linguistic conservatism.

Everyone else? Let them call the damn things quesadillas even without cheese. It may seem foolish, but it’s their foolishness.

We all have our own linguistic ticks. Live and let live.

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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