Do you eat beans? To crush? Tomatoes? How about potatoes, chilies, corn, (maize) or hot cocoa? Guess what? All of these foods were our heritage from Native Americans – and this group also includes Central and South America.
There were more, of course, like sunflower, wild rice, peanuts, papayas, and in many places bison and buffalo, to name a few, but the next seven were important to just about everyone.
And for those who would like to know the difference between maize and maize, the answer is “very little”. According to Wikipedia, maize and maize are pretty much the same, but corn is a grain domesticated by the Mexican people 10,000 years ago.
Dave Roos, freelance writer, explains that up to three-fifths of the world’s agriculture comes from the Americas. That’s a lot of harvest. Just think…if there were no tomatoes for Italian cooking or no chili peppers for hot Indian cooking or no staple foods like potatoes, squash, beans or corn, wouldn’t that be pretty awful, since so many people depend on these foods?
Jules Janick, professor emeritus of horticulture at Purdue University, wrote “Much of the domestication and selection that resulted in the major food crops of today, the important initial work was done by peoples indigenous”.
Since the Americas span a wide spectrum, Indigenous cuisine varies widely by region and culture. For example, Native North American foods differ significantly from Southwestern and Mexican foods, which differ from Canadian Natives, South American Natives, etc.
A book on heritage farming, written by Gary Nabahan, explains that heritage farming honors the contributions of farmers from many cultures who depended on foods adopted where they live.
On the following pages, let’s take a look at these seven vitally important foods.
This crop, which we call “maize”, was domesticated from wild grasses. This corn was not eaten fresh like our sweet corn, but dried on the stalk and then ground into flour for tortillas, corn breads and corn porridge.
Corn cultivation was a foothold for nomadic tribes like the Mayas, Aztecs and Incas.
The first Native Americans to grow corn/maize were the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. For them, it was a staple culture that sustained tribes like the Creeks, Cherokee, and Iroquois.
Dry beans were the ideal crop to accompany corn because beans were nitrogen-fixing legumes. They provided nitrogen-rich soil for corn, while corn stalks provided supports for the bean’s climbing vines. “Most importantly,” said Jules Janick, “a diet of beans and corn is high in essential protein that neither provides on its own.”
Another legume that has become vital to the new world is the groundnut, which originated in Brazil.
Squash and squash were prized by Native Americans for their nutrient-rich flesh and protein-rich seeds. Their hard shells were also highly valued, which were dried and used as water jugs and other vessels.
Pumpkins and hard-skinned winter squash were part of a delicious mixed group called “three sisters,” which included corn and beans (see recipe). In particular, winter squash’s broad, leafy vines spread out in all directions and provide a ground cover that locks in moisture and suppresses weeds. Try it in your garden.
The humble potato was first grown in the Andes mountains of Peru. Although it may not sound like a superfood, potatoes contain all essential vitamins except A and D. They are also a high-caliber source of protein – yes, protein, not just starch.
Sweet potatoes originated in Central America around 5,000 years ago and not only spread to the Americas, but even reached Polynesia and Africa.
Today, the potato is the fourth largest production crop in the world. Quite impressive for a crop with such a humble start.
Tomatoes began in South America as wild fruits the size of blueberries. They landed in Mexico, where they were domesticated and became a staple of the Aztec diet around 7,000 years ago.
A colorful description of tomato varieties in Aztec markets was enthusiastically given by a colonial historian named Friar Bernardino de Sahagun. The brother described “large tomatoes, small tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, fine tomatoes, sweet tomatoes…those that are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red, bright red, reddish, dawn-colored roses”.
Since Europeans were afraid of tomatoes due to their relationship with the poisonous mandrake plant, it took centuries for the tomato to become a staple of pizza and other favorite Italian dishes.
The oldest name for a chili pepper was Capsicum, attributed to east-central Mexico, where wild chili peppers were first domesticated. The Aztecs, however, gave us the name for this spicy treat, calling it “chilli” in their native language. Christopher Columbus added the term “pepper”, because the spice reminded him of black pepper.
Hot peppers came to America first. Sweet peppers arrived centuries later, when Hungarian planters selected less and less spicy varieties.
Rumor has it that Aztec Emperor Montezuma drank 50 glasses of hot chocolate a day. His recipe, however, would bear little resemblance to today’s sweet version.
Cacao trees were cultivated and revered by the Maya, but the first cacao trees were domesticated in South America in the high Amazon regions of Ecuador.
When the Spanish conquistadors brought cocoa to Europe in the 1500s, it was mixed with sugar and cinnamon to become a health drink. The first chocolate bars were not made until the mid-19th century, when the popularity of cocoa spread across North America.
There you have it – the seven most important culinary plantations started somewhere in the Americas – North, Central or South.
Sean Sherman, a professional Sioux chef, talks about the foods of his heritage: “Real North American foods may not be available in every grocery store or online, and they don’t come from factory farms. They are seasonal and vary from region to region. To experience real indigenous cuisine is to explore the many different ecosystems. . . wherever you are.”
Before ending with the promised recipe, a quick word on cooking utensils from indigenous cultures.
Early utensils, including bowls, knives, spoons, grinders and griddles, were made from a variety of materials, namely rock and animal bones. Gourds were also grown, hollowed out and dried and then used as bowls, spoons, ladles and storage containers.
Many indigenous cultures also developed elaborate ceramics for bowls and cooking pots. They also weave basketry for containers. Nobles in the Andean and Mesoamerican civilizations were known to have utensils and vessels melted down from gold, silver, copper, or other sometimes valuable minerals.