There are children in America who have never held a piece of whole fruit in their hands. There are families in America who spend nearly all or all of their food budget money on boxes, cans and jars – processed foods filled with additives, preservatives, fragrances, colors, pesticides, genetically modified ingredients and precious little nutritious food.
There are so many people in the United States who are now too many generations removed from the preparation of simple foods and a wholesome diet that they are living without the survival skills of knowing what to eat to satisfy hunger and nourish the body. This deficiency is astounding. Americans overeat their way to obesity, desperately seeking the satisfaction of a good, full feeling that they cannot get from processed foods and nearly all American authority has been given away regarding the foods our families eat. In cities and rural areas alike, our people are no longer growing or cooking their own whole foods. We have designated ‘experts’, living ‘somewhere else’, to produce the sustenance on which our lives depend and our spirits, minds and bodies are paying the price of depression, ignorance and weakness for this trade.
On the continents of North and South America, with our soil, our water, our weather and our relative liberty, we should be enjoying the best eating in the world. Each of us should possess powerful, intimate knowledge about how to find or grow and prepare the most wonderful, healthful and delicious meals. We live in the midst of potential abundance that is ours for the taking if we only have the knowledge we need.
The cultivated forests, gardens and orchards of North, Central and South America were once the glory of these lands. The people who came to be called ‘Indians’ bred and cultured the key foods that have become some of the most popular and famous around the globe and it is my belief that knowledge and understanding of these exceptional foods is the secret to creating the best possible diet for the modern inhabitants of the Americas. With gratitude, we can come to know these whole foods that have supported life here for thousands and thousands of years. This article aims to be your introduction to the fabulous basic foods which can form the base of an eco-friendly, people-friendly diet for your family now and forever.
The Agricultural Line
For a moment, try to clear your mind of thoughts of modern cities, states, countries and borders. Picture the continents as mere land masses and imagine a line running diagonally roughly from what is now New England to what is now Baja California. Though there are exceptions to this idea, it is evident that for thousands of years, the people dwelling north of the line lived mainly by foraging and hunting.
This does not mean they didn’t work with the landscape. On the contrary, their hunting and forestry practices were extremely complex and skilled, ensuring that the woodlands had the best trees for their needs and that the wild animals were most abundant in the most convenient places. The people’s knowledge of terrain, weather and plants was so far beyond ours in modern times, it is baffling to realize what was lost as a result of the genocide…both lives and millennia of knowledge about how to live in America were destroyed. The people of America, both Indian and Non-Indian, have yet to recover from this loss of survival skills.
South of the line, we have the greatest horticulturists the world may ever have known. Generations of skilled farmers coaxed into existence the crops which have become the staples of civilizations the world over. The Italians could hardly imagine life without polenta, just as the Irish would be lost without potatoes and they owe it all to the early Americans who carefully selected and cultivated strains of these nutritional powerhouse plants over hundreds and thousands of years.
Because of the dense population of the United States and the concept of private ownership of lands, it is very difficult to live in modern times by hunting and gathering. The grains, greens, nuts, roots and seeds we might want are all behind fences. The eating traditions of the North are beyond most of us to replicate. South of the line, however, we can look for a sustainable lifestyle that absolutely works in the 21st century. We can look to places like ancient Mexico, Peru and New England for a model diet and a planet-friendly way of feeding ourselves. It worked for almost countless ages. It can work for us again.
Meet The Milpa
Milpa farming revolves around planting a mix of crops in combination. Maize rises toward the sun while beans entwine its strong stalks, filling the ground with much-needed nitrogen, and fast-growing squash vines thrive in the dappled spaces in between. Depending on the region, other crops such as sunflowers, avocados or tomatoes are planted. This brilliant method of farming made such excellent use of space and provided such complete nutrition that the concept of growing food this way came to be practiced nearly everywhere south of the line on our map. For thousands of years, milpa farms fed people and they can be planted today with equal success and equal benefits for human beings.
I do not believe that Americans can find a more healthful or incredibly delicious set of foods to locate, grow or cook than the key crops in the milpa and the greatest agricultural achievements of the earliest and wisest inhabitants of these lands. Now, we’re ready to take a new look at these incredible foods.
So central to the diet and beliefs of American people is this plant that the Indians of Mexico often refer to themselves as corn walking. For early Americans in North, Central and South America, maize was the staff of life – the grain that enabled them to see a return of as much as 800 kernels for every kernel planted. At least 30 times more productive than most grain crops of non-Native-American origin, and capable of growing in nearly every type of soil and climate, maize has been the anchor of Native American diets since it was first cultivated some 12,000 or more years ago.
In Central and South America, myriad varieties of maize are still grown for flour, for the making of tortillas, tamales, porridges, stews, beverages and snacks. But, in the United States and Canada, the majority of corn is grown for factory animal feed and the manufacture of industrial products. Even when small farms or families grow corn, they are most likely to grow sweet corn instead of dent or flour corn because the skills of milling and processing these most nutritious corns into useful grain products have been lost. I believe that the day local mills reopen their doors would be one of the happiest days in America. Sweet corn is a wonderful treat, but the dishes you can make from corn flour, masa, polenta-milled corn can form the basis of a vibrant diet of almost unlimited variety.
From tacos, to tamale pie, to jonny cakes and puddings, maize is a blessing for which we can’t be thankful enough and it is so sacred to many Native peoples that it is an integral part of both cultural identity and spiritual practices. But corn is under attack now on these continents as a result of corporate desecration of the genes of corn. The spread of genetically modified corn is destroying our ancient maize landraces and making a new substance that is unfit for human beings or animals to eat. Wild geese will not settle in GMO corn fields and scientific literature cites this GMO corn as a carcinogen…corn that causes cancer instead of giving life.
All people who love corn must become educated about GMO contamination of this staple food source on which our health is so dependent and I urge you to purchase and grow only organic corn that is being protected from biotechnology by means of testing. For farm families wishing to grow either sweet or flour maize, I would suggest buying your seed from Fedco. Fedco is working to supply safe seed to people and I support them in this vital work, and I beg all American people to fight and ban genetic modification of our vital Native American Foods.
Human beings need protein to live, and there is no better or kinder source of it than dry beans. Take your pick of pinto beans, Anasazi beans, black beans, kidney beans, red beans and you will be drawing from a tradition that is thousands of years old. Evidence of bean cultivation in Peru dates back to at least 6500 BC and other evidence points to another ancient legacy of bean cultivation in Mexico. There are 4000 varieties of beans on record in the United States, alone, and your dinners will only be limited by the extent of your creativity when your meals include beans.
Our family’s favorite bean dish is the simple refritos – refried beans. We eat these almost every day, but we also love to incorporate beans into soups, stews and casseroles. Baked beans are a classic and if you mash them up cold the next day, they make a very toothsome sandwich spread. Some onion, some salt, some herbs – just a little imagination can turn plain beans into a feast for a hungry family.
I am always surprised by the needless trouble cookbooks make about cooking beans from scratch. If you can boil water, you can make beans. Some cooks insist that pre-soaking beans, draining off soaking water and other methods make beans more digestible. I have never really understood this, but it may be our family’s ancestry that prevents us having any little side effects from eating beans. All we do is wash them really well, sautee some onion in our big pot, put in the beans and water, cook them for a few hours and then eat them.
None of these other steps are necessary, as far as our own experience goes, but if, for some reason, you have experienced trouble with beans, I would suggest that you make a small pot of them and eat just a spoonful for the first few days…then eat a few spoonfuls. Work your way up to being able to enjoy a full serving of beans by giving your body time to get used to them. And, if these give you a little gas now and then, why should you worry? Everyone has some gas sometimes. That is certainly no reason to bar yourself from enjoying this superior source of protein and culinary joy!
If I believed in former lives, I would think I had once lived as a squash. No other vegetable seems to shine to me with such warmth and friendliness. When you grow squash, they are like little friends, getting bigger every day in the garden. Their colors and shapes make them like priceless works of art and their delicious, nutritious flesh adds such goodness to meals. Some researchers believe that squashes were the first plants ever cultivated by humankind in the Americas and signs of their presence date back at least 10,000 years in Mesoamerica. The squash has been a friend to man for time beyond recall.
In the United States, we can enjoy two main types of squash. Summer squashes like pattypans and crooknecks are so tender if they are picked when small that they need only a minute of sauteeing them to turn them into little slices of succulent flavor. I greet the arrival of the first summer squash each year with absolute rapture. Once again, I can make stir fries, soups, casseroles, savory pies and marinated dishes with the hearty substance that only squash can provide.
Grown all summer and picked in the fall, winter squash take care of us through the cold months of the year. Their storage qualities are exceptional and in the story of Buffalo Bird Woman great detail is given as to how the Hidatsa people dried rings of winter squash to feed their villages throughout the long winter days. Many Native Peoples extracted a rich, green oil from squash seeds…a favorite at the court of Montezuma.
Winter squashes come in a stunning variety. Try Lakotah squash, buttercup, acorn, pumpkin….each one’s flesh is different in texture and taste. Many cooks feel that winter squashes make a tastier pie than pumpkins do. My family’s favorite way to eat them is baked and either stuffed with a savory stuffing or dressed with my gingerbread dressing. I plan to post the recipe for that in the future and I think your family will stand up and cheer if they taste it!
Scientists and nutritionists praise squashes for their vitamin content, but for millenia, Native peoples have loved squashes simply for the good, full feeling of energy and satisfaction they provide when eaten.
Maize, beans and squash. These are the Native American triad of a healthy diet and our family eats them daily, in some exciting form our other. But this is not all. This base of three Native American Foods can be added to in all kinds of wonderful and delicious ways. Consider how you can enjoy the following:
In Scandinavia, it is said that the people don’t feel they’ve eaten a meal unless it included potatoes. They owe their appreciation for this mealy, steaming, filling happiness to the people of Peru who first cultivated some wild tubers at least 10,000 years ago and turned them into the potatoes countless nations love today. By the time the Incas were ruling Peru in the middle of the 1st millenium A.D., the Andes were ingeniously planted with nutritious potatoes on slopes that look too steep to even walk on.
Our family eats potatoes daily, in stews and soups, baked, boiled, hashed, fried. There is no comparable experience that I know of to eating the first, new potatoes of the year, boiled for mere minutes and simply dressed with a little oil, salt, pepper and parsley just seconds after being dug out of the earth. Potatoes are so easy to grow, I wish everyone could have this unforgettable experience, and the rest of the year, potatoes help us to feel healthy and strong by adding their mineral-rich, starchy bulk to our diet.
Sweet Potatoes (sometimes called Yams) are another blessing from the tropical regions of South America where they have been cultivated for at least 5000 years. We love to make a sweet sauce of peanuts and maple syrup (both Native American Foods), salt, pepper and warming spices to dress our baked sweet potatoes with. Prepared this way, they are almost like dessert but they make a very nutritious side dish to a meal. With some frijoles and a cup of really good homemade soup, you have a dinner fit to serve the most special company.
This is a picture of the Tarahumara sunflowers we grew this year on our family farm. They are almost ready to harvest now and they have unusual white shells covering the nutritious, oily seeds. Buffalo Bird Woman, referenced above, tells of how the Hidatsa people of earlier times would make balls of ground sunflower meal to take along with them on journeys or out to the fields while working. If they began to feel fatigued, they would nibble their sunflower seed ball and feel wonderfully restored.
Scientists praise sunflower seeds for their oils and proteins. At least 3000 years ago, sunflowers were being cultivated in Mexico and were so beloved that they were used to represent solar gods in both Aztec and Inca art.
You can enjoy sunflowers raw or roasted. They can be added to stir fries, salads, and baked goods or ground into sunflower butter. When you look at beautiful yellow sunflowers, picture the sustaining energy contained in these good plants and how their seeds can help to feed your family in a healthy way.
A good avocado is so delicious, it almost defies my powers of description. So rich, so creamy, so dense and filling and luxurious, an avocado is a unique gift to all American people. Avocados of many varieties grow wild in both Central and South America, but no one really knows when early peoples first began cultivating the trees. Pre-Inca pottery was made in the shapes of avocados to celebrate them and this teaches us how important these fruits have been for a very long time.
In the destruction caused by the arrival of the brutal conquistadores in the Americas from Europe, the traditional diet of Native Peoples was forever altered by the introduction of lard from pigs. Instead of relying on the squash seeds, sunflower seeds, avocados and other plants for healthy fats, inhabitants of North, Central and South America began eating more animal fats, a change scientists now see as an unhealthy one. If you are currently working towards a family diet with less unhealthy fats, consider these good plant sources as an ancient, time-tested alternative.
In addition to the guacamole most modern Americans know, avocados are traditionally used in soups, corn-based dishes like tacos, in salads and on sandwiches and even whipped up into desserts! USA-produced organic avocados are available between March-September every year and they are a truly valuable and incredibly sumptuous Native American food.
Considering that this fruit is so widely used, it is surprising how little is know about the tomato’s origin. Small, green wild relations of the tomato grow in Peru and Aztec recipes for various kinds of tomato salsas indicate the provenance of this special Native American food, but it seems no one is quite sure who first began cultivating and hybridizing tomatoes in ancient times.
Tomatoes add a unique juiciness and tang to otherwise dry dishes and they are a beloved addition to stews, soups, sauces, salads, sandwiches and even desserts. Tomatoes are so easy to grow that I wish every family could have the experience of a fresh-picked tomato from the garden. It is nothing like the taste of tomatoes from supermarkets. Even natural foods stores have bland, mediocre tomatoes. If you can’t grow tomatoes yourself, buy them from the nearest farmer you can find, and make sure you buy only organic tomatoes.
During the summer and fall, our family eats tomatoes every day, and we like to freeze some for winter use. When you think of just how many world cuisines incorporate the tomato – Asian, Arabic, European, African – it is very important to remember that the fruits we enjoy came to us through the work of early peoples.
But, wait! There are even more Native American Foods
With corn, beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, avocados and sunflower seeds, the bounty on our tables is already almost embarrassing. Literally hundreds and hundreds of delicious meals can be based on these ingredients, alone. But there is more to come! Consider how much extra appeal can be added to your meals when they include some of these delicious and traditional Native American Foods:
Also called Sunroots or Jerusalem Artichokes, these interesting little tubers are native to North America. Likened to a potato in texture, sunchokes can be eaten cooked but I like them best thrown into a stir fry at just the last minute to warm them. If you would like a Native American substitute for the canned water chestnuts used in Chinese American cuisine, sunchokes are going to thrill you. I make dishes of snow peas and sunchoke ‘water chestnuts’ when the peas get ripe in the spring and they are so delicious. Sunchokes are only one of the hundreds of roots and tubers cultivated and picked wild by Native Americans as a staple food source.
I don’t feel well if I have to go too long without eating some kind of greens, whether fresh or briefly cooked. Early Americans harvested the leaves of too many kinds of plants to count in order to enjoy something good and green to eat. Wild spinaches like goosefoot are still greatly prized by many Native Peoples today. Whether you are picking wild greens or eating cultivated ones, you will enjoy the fresh, energetic feeling you get from including them frequently in your meals.
Grains, Nuts & Seeds
Amaranth and Quinoa have recently been making big news in health magazines as miracle grains. They have certainly been a staple for generations. Chia seeds are just beginning to catch on, too. And don’t forget hazelnuts, hickory nuts, walnuts and pinenuts – wonderful, delicious sources of proteins and fats. Most modern people do not have the knowledge needed to turn acorns into good food, but these skills can also be learned if you like. And don’t forget the peanuts! The peanut butter in your sandwich is a Native American food very familiar to most people in the United States today.
Almost every region in the United States has its berries – blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, etc. When you add to this the native plums, persimmons, bananas, wild strawberries, grapes, prickly pears…the list of Native American foods really starts to get long!
Herbs & Others
I am always coming across American Indians singing nostalgic praises of wild onions. It’s easy to understand why. Truly, onions are an unsurpassed gift to cooking, whether they are wild or cultivated. Dishes often do not taste right without a little onion and you can use them liberally. There are Native American herbs, too, like Epazote, which is not well known outside the regions where it is grown. Using herbs in cooking brings out new flavors and adds to the subtlety and goodness of dishes. Beans and squash can become whole new kinds of foods, just by using different seasonings. Maybe you have also tried the delicious little green tomatillos in their papery husks that make the piquant salsa verde you love on Mexican restaurant food. Then there are all of the peppers – both hot ones and sweet ones that can bring incredible flavor to meals. I’m getting hungry now. How about you?
Well, don’t forget the maple syrup, the agave, the chocolate. Now you’ve got dinner and dessert, too!
Why A Native American Foods-based Diet Makes Sense For All Americans
I love homemade Chinese food and delight in an occasional Middle Eastern meal. With things like citrus fruits, garbanzo beans and sesame seeds being cultivated on the American continents, I see no reason not to enjoy these fine foods whenever I’d like to. One non-Native-American food – rice – has definitely become a staple in our home.
But, as much as I enjoy these other noble cuisines, nothing is so satisfying for me, walking on American soil, as eating the foods that are native to this piece of land. Native American foods require the smallest efforts and inputs to grow them because they are meant to grow here. Native American Foods require less transport than processed foods shipped into us from China or other countries outside the Americas. Native American Foods can be fit together like the pieces of a puzzle to create a diet that is always nutritious and always balanced.
In the United States, historians and other researchers have a bad habit of making it sound like Native Americans have vanished from the earth, tragically killed off by European invaders. While it is true that every part of North, Central and South America suffered incalculable loss of life due to unintentional disease and utterly intentional murder, indigenous peoples are very much alive today, whether they live in Montreal, San Francisco, Oaxaca or Lima. In some places, native traditions have not survived the genocide, but in others, the people called ‘Indians’ are still living and farming as they have for thousands of years. The American continents are blessed with a tremendous diversity of Native Peoples, but the history of these lands since the time of the conquistadores has been one of violence instead of one of learning how to love the lands.
Even now, Native Peoples on both continents are being disregarded, abused and killed by latecomers. When you do your research about GMOs, you will see farmers in Mexico, Ecuador and Peru talking with fear and pain in their eyes about ‘multinationals’ and ‘global trade’…much as I imagine the Iroquois sounded when they spoke of George Washington whom they called, ‘destroyer of towns.’
Rather than learning from America’s oldest inhabitants, latecomers ride roughshod over the gardens, the managed forests, the orchards and fields of the very people who know how to farm and eat best in this part of the world.
With so much talk of ecology and the green movement, maybe this is the time that our history will turn in a new direction. Maybe, instead of greed and hatred ruling the day, exchanges of knowledge can take precedent. Maybe, instead of an insane lust for gold, for uranium, for plastic, for oil, for whatever is the latest thing, all Americans can realize that food is the most important thing to know how to acquire and prepare. We can live without shiny metals. We cannot live without eating and if we want to be very green, we can look around the plot of continental rock on which we live for the foods that love to grow here.
On our farm, we sing to our plants. We dance around them when their first fruits are ready to be harvested. We ask their permission to take some of their goodness into ourselves. And, they always answer, “yes.” We are as happy as small children, every time we feel the love these plants show for us, especially when we think of the thousands of years of history spanning the growth of plants and people, side by side. We can be corn walking. We can be squash and beans and berries walking. We can have all these fine things without causing harm to ourselves, our fellow beings or our planet. We have it that good.
In future, I will be continuing to share some of my best recipes here on VeganReader, most of which are based largely on Native American ingredients. Just as Native Peoples have not disappeared, neither has the need to create disappeared. We are not limited to preparing foods exactly as our early peoples did. Traditional dishes are irreplaceable treasures, but we are alive, right now, with all of these terrific foods around us and can create new dishes that become classics in our families and may be passed along to future generations.
We can keep the celebration of these Native American Foods going strong by continuing to let them pass through our hands to nourish our dear ones in so many different ways. Don’t ever think that the celebration isn’t important. It was the way of life for the earliest inhabitants of this continent, and if we want health and happiness, it can be our way of life, too. Surely, the Earth will feel glad in our gladness.