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Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

Louisiana Agriculture in the Classroom

Lesson Plan

The QUEST for the Whole Enchilada

Grade Level
6 - 8

This lesson utilizes a process learning model to recognize how the Columbian Exchange and early Spanish explorers impacted the culture and cuisine of the Southwest United States. Students will participate in a food lab to make enchiladas and learn about the production of each ingredient. Grades 6-8

Estimated Time
Two 55-minute class periods
Materials Needed

acequia: a Spanish word for an irrigation ditch

carreta: a Spanish word for a cart with two wooden wheels

Columbian Exchange: a widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations, communicable disease, and ideas between the New World (Americas) and the Old World (Africa and Europe)

commodity: a primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold

encomienda: a Spanish word referring to a grant by the Spanish Crown to a colonist giving the right to demand tribute and forced labor from the native populations

estancia: a Spanish word for a small farm

Mesoamerica: a region and cultural area in the Americas extending from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua

New World: a term referring to the foods and culture originating in the Americas

Old World: a term referring to the foods and culture originating in Europe, Africa, or Asia

Did You Know?
  • The difference between a red chile and a green chile is the maturity of the fruit.
  • Santa Fe is the oldest capital in the United States, founded by Diego de Vargas in 1610.
  • All Spanish towns were laid out with set guidelines. The plaza was in the center, the Roman Catholic church on the east side of the plaza and government buildings and residences of the main civil and religious officials were on the other sides. Town homes were planned and built to serve as a defense against intruders.
  • The state of New Mexico was officially named in 1607 before Mexico was officially named in 1821.
  • Pueblo peoples, while sharing a common culture and living patterns, spoke different languages (Tewa, Towa, Tiwa, Keres).
Background Agricultural Connections

New Mexico's state question, “Red or Green?” is the perfect example of how New Mexicans have survived together, maintained their heritage to create a unique multi-cultural legacy.  The traditional cuisine of the Southwest is a literal expression of that blending of agricultural products from all parts of the world.  The enchilada is a product of those who were here and those who came after. It is made up of corn tortillas (American origin), beef or chicken (European origin), cheese (European origin) and green or red chile (Meso-American brought by Spanish settlers). This project seeks to discover the movement of several agricultural products to New Mexico from Europe and Mesoamerica with the Spanish explorers and settlers and the subsequent assimilation into the “Whole Enchilada.”

Columbian Exchange
Beginning with Christopher Columbus's expeditions and the conquest of the Americas, agriculture changed the world's food supply and civilization like no other event in history.  The New World gave things like chocolate, peanuts, corn, pumpkins, turkey, tobacco, chile and potatoes to Europe, while the Old World brought cattle, sheep, goats, horses, stone fruits, donkeys and wheat to the Americas. From the West Indies, exploration moved west toward Central America. This lesson focuses primarily on the explorers of the American Southwest and only prefaces the Columbian Exchange. For a more in-depth lesson on the Columbian Exchange consider teaching The Columbian Exchange of Old and Ne World Foods as a preface to this lesson. 

Early Spanish Explorers
In search for more slaves for the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies, Hernando Cortez discovered the vast riches of the Aztec Empire at Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City).  In 1521 with the conquest of the Aztecs and the establishment of New Spain, Cortez and the Spanish introduced European livestock and plants to New Spain (Mexico). The Spanish adopted the chile pepper and corn into their cuisine and crops. Farms, ranches, mines and villas were developed and lands were plowed, planted and built on steadily moving toward the North.

It wasn’t just land that the Spanish wanted, the stories of more gold pushed them as well. With the fabulous treasures they acquired from the Mexica, a fever was fueled for more riches fabled to be far north of the Aztec empire in a land called "Quivira". Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, a shipwreck survivor who wandered around the Southwest from 1528-1536, spread more tales about the Seven Cities of Gold. Ill-fated expeditions by Fray Marcos de Niza (1539) and a 3 year trek by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado yielded geographical knowledge of the Southwest but no riches. He explored the land of the Pueblos where he found villages with fields of corn, beans, and squash. Their only domesticated livestock were turkeys and small dogs. The natives saw horses, muskets and Spanish soldiers for the first time. 

40 years would pass before the legends of a "New Mexico" would reappear with mines in New Spain needing more workers and an expanding population of Spanish settlers wanting land and riches. Don Juan de Onate, the son and son-in-law of conquistadores/settlers of Zacatecas, was commissioned by Spain's King Philip to establish the first permanent colonies/farms in New Mexico. Between 1598 and 1608, San Juan de los Caballeros, then San Gabriel near present day Ohkay Owingeh (formerly named San Juan Pueblo) were founded and estancias developed. The Spanish utilized irrigation methods developed by the Pueblo with acequia systems that are used today, and the Pueblos were introduced to many new crops and domestic animals, especially the horse and sheep. Slave labor, known as the encomienda system, was used to build churches, develop estancias and haciendas, and force the natives to adopt Spanish culture.

Even though these first efforts failed due to disease, drought, conflicts and deplorable treatment of the natives, agriculture and technology were forever changed. New cuisine that incorporated corn, beans, squash, beef, chicken and chile were now possible. Dairy products including cheese and fresh milk (usually from goats) were available, and the famous New Mexico enchilada had all the ingredients to be compiled into a new dish enjoyed by settlers and natives. Horses, mules, donkeys, oxen and the wheeled cart (carreta) changed transportation and farming methods. Trade fairs selling commodities further disseminated new products and technologies.

Today, our enchilada is an adopted part of the symbols of the American Southwest as well as its components being important contributors to the economy. As we layer corn tortillas, beef, cheese and chile sauce, we can visualize the farms, ranches, dairies and cheese factories that make it possible.  Beef cattle are New Mexico’s number one crop raised throughout the state. Dairy products rank number two with a couple of the largest cheese factories in the US and around 320,000 cows in 2012. Chile is a main crop of the lower Rio Grande Valley in Hatch and Las Cruces, providing 37% of the nation’s supply. Corn fits in as eighth for cash receipts, and is mainly used as feed grain.3

Middle school students are ready to learn how to prepare simple main dishes. The enchilada is nutritious, containing vegetables, meat, grain and dairy; it’s traditional, and it’s tasty!  

  1. Q - Question: Ask your students to choose red or green. After a few moments, explain that this is New Mexico's state question adopted by the state legislature in 1996. Then ask, "To what does this question refer?" Allow students to guess. After students have begun thinking and guessing, give them the following hint: It refers to the New Mexico state vegetable (which in science terms is actually a fruit). The answer is a chile pepper.
  2. Hold a class discussion about chile peppers. Ask students the following questions:
    • What are some common foods made with chiles? Green or red chiles?
    • What cultures commonly use chiles as part of their cuisine?
  3. Explain to students that they will explore how 3 cultures (Spanish, Pueblo, Mexica) came together to create a New Mexican cuisine and economy.
Explore and Explain
  1. Introduce learning model:
    • Q - Question (focus)
    • U - Uncover (background information)
    • E - Extrapolate (Explore, Connect, Reflect)
    • S - Share (Explain, Elaborate, Demonstrate)
    • T - Take Away (Evaluation)
  2. U - Uncover: Background Information Activity
    1. Discuss the Columbian Exchange and reflect with your students how it changed world agriculture.
    2. With your students, brainstorm examples of various foods. Use one of the following ideas:
      • Have each student place the name of a food item on a sticky note and place it on the board.
      • Use the Food Models or printed pictures of foods.
      • Brainstorm orally as a class and make a list on the board.
    3. Categorize the foods into American (New World) or (Old World) columns.
      • New World Examples:
        • Crops: corn, squash, pinto beans, pecans, peanuts, and potatoes.
        • Livestock: turkeys
      • Old World Examples: 
        • Crops: wheat, rice, almonds, peaches, and cherries.
        • Livestock: cattle, sheep, goats, horses, swine, and chickens.
    4. Give each student a copy of the Spanish Explorers: Who Brought What, Where? handout. Instruct them to follow the directions found on the worksheet. 
    5. Present the attached poem, Encanto Nuevo Mexico along with Kim Wiggins' art selections to wrap up the Spanish explorer portion of the lesson and expose students to art influenced by the culture and traditions of New Mexico. Ask the following questions:
      • What examples of trade and agriculture are portrayed?
      • Why is there conflict in these emerging societies?
  3. E - Extrapolate:
    1. Divide your students into four groups with 4 students each.
      • Note: If you have a large class, create additional groups as needed.
    2. Give each group a copy of the Student Commodity Presentation Rubric. Review the assignment and expectations with your class.
    3. Assign each group an ingredient used to make enchiladas by giving them the associated commodity handout:
    4. Give each group various art supplies such as butcher paper, markers, old magazines (to cut pictures out of), etc. Provide internet access to the following website to gather statistical information on their commodity:
    5. Instruct students to begin by reading their commodity handouts, then to proceed in making a poster as outlined in the rubric. Allow adequate time for students to complete the group assignment.
  4. S - Share:
    1. During the next class period have each group present their commodity (enchilada ingredient) to the class.
    2. As a class, review the Food Lab Procedure sheet.
    3. Place students in groups of 5 or 6. Provide a microwave-safe casserole dish, tortillas, grated cheese, can of red or green enchilada sauce, and a meat choice (optional). Layer the tortillas, meat (if used), cheese, and sauce inside the pan. Microwave for 5 minutes to melt cheese and warm sauce. If you have access to a Food Lab setting with ovens, the enchiladas can be cooked at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until the cheese is melted.
    4. Enjoy the "Whole Enchilada."
  5. T - Take Away
    1. Use the following questions for a guided summary discussion of the lesson. 
      • How did the early explorers and Spanish settlers change the societies of the Southwest?
      • How did these early societies benefit from new crops and livestock?
      • What were some disadvantages and problems?
      • How do corn, livestock and dairy industries contribute to our state's economy today? 
    2. Assign each student to answer two of the questions above as their "ticket out the door" at the end of class.
  • This lesson can be adapted to any regional area and applied to their local commodities and cultural cuisine. Examples include Creole dishes, North Carolina barbecue, German Bratwurst, etc.


Review and summarize the following key points:

  • Exploration and trade played an important role in the development of early societies.
  • As agriculture developed, societies also developed.
  1. Art contained in the poem, Encanto Nuevo Mexico by Kim Wiggins
  2. A Chile Pepper Institute publication, New Mexico State University, 2007
  3. Agriculture's Contribution to New Mexico's Economy
  4. Atlas of Historic New Mexico Maps-
Melinda Jackson
New Mexico Agriculture in the Classroom
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