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History of Native American Food and Succotash Recipe
Corn and Beans Became Staples of the Americas
It has been said that Native Americans have contributed at least 3/5 of all crops now in cultivation. Their efforts at agriculture have indeed changed the world. Different groups of Native Americans developed a plethora of different foods, mostly in Central America and the northern part of South America. We can credit our Native American ancestors with - among others - tomatoes, peppers, squashes (all varieties except for a few different types that came from peoples in present-day United States), and many types of beans found all over the world.
About 11,500 years ago, different groups of Native Americans were still hunting and gathering. They ate whatever animals were easy to obtain: deer, horses, antelopes, and even several species of rodents. If they were near water, they ate fish and giant sea turtles.
As climate and habitat changed, the Native American diet did, too. Somewhere along the line, they noticed they could eat acorns by grinding and then soaking them. They also discovered that they could cook agave to make it edible, and they feasted on wild squash.
At some point, they figured out that last year’s seeds were sprouting in the refuse pile. This began the early stages of agriculture.
The first vegetables they began to cultivate included squash, gourds and peppers. They also tried out bristlegrass, a cousin to the grains of today.
Where do you think corn came from?
Native Americans Created Corn?
No one knows exactly how, but corn came next. It’s genetically similar to wheat and other grains, but with one important difference: humans have to be around to cultivate it and get the seeds out. The seeds are wrapped in the husks and this plant cannot reproduce without humans shucking the husks and getting the corn kernels off the cob.
What’s curious about corn, is that it doesn’t have an obvious ancestor. There is no wild maize from which regular corn came! This is why many think that Native Americans “created” corn by possibly crossing other plants to come up with what is now corn. They may be humanity’s first genetic engineers.
Vigorous debate continues about how the corn plant came to be. One thing is for sure: corn did originate in Central America, probably near southern Mexico.
The corn plant has a distant cousin: teosinte. It’s not that much like corn and isn’t ideal as a food source. It has “ears,” but they’re barely an inch long and the seeds are woody and hard. An entire plant is less nutritious than one kernel of regular corn!
Usually when humans domesticate a plant, its genetic diversity actually dwindles. This is because once people find a variety of plant they like – because of its resistance to disease, taste, or other such factors – they usually cultivate it on a larger scale. Think about how many varieties of garlic that you’re familiar with; people usually haven’t heard of elephant garlic, for example. We’re so familiar with the one silky white variety we find in the supermarket and that's what gets cultivated.
But with corn, it’s the opposite! Since the time of its domestication, it’s become quite diverse. You can get it in practically every color of the rainbow: pink, red, orange, yellow, blue, purple, multicolored, cream, and black. Its size varies greatly, too, from small cobs the size of a human finger to bigger varieties used in soups.
Despite needing help from humans to propagate, corn is adept at pollinating itself. The wind can carry corn pollen from one field to the next. The pollen readily combines with other varieties of corn. If left to its own devices, corn would eventually become one variety because of all the cross-pollination it is prone to doing. But, that doesn’t happen because farmers select for different varieties of corn and they won't grow undesirables.
Planting the Three Sisters
Using the Milpa
Another incredible contribution by Native Americans is the milpa. While you may not have heard of this word, it’s basically the idea of planting a variety of compatible crops together in the same patch of land. Thus, these early farmers would plant corn, beans and squash together (called the “Three Sisters”), as well as avocados, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and a few others. It’s a system that replenishes itself and everything that grows in the milpa is beneficial to the other plants as well as the earth.
H. Garrison Wilkes, a researcher of maize at the University of Massachusetts in Boston remarked, “the milpa is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”1 Native Americans realized early on that corn and beans complement each other. The corn stalks grew sturdy and tall, providing a natural trellis for beans. The beans provided a natural groundcover for the corn.
In today’s world, large-scale farmers usually have just one type of plant in a particular field, and they have to use manufactured fertilizer to treat their plants. The problem with this method is that the soil gets rapidly depleted and synthetic fertilizers can permanently damage it. They’re not in a complete ecosystem, with other plants contributing to the soil and tiny organisms aerating it. This makes large-scale crops more vulnerable to disease.
If you look at farmers in other parts of the world, they often will rotate fields or let them “rest.” But, after awhile, the nutrients in the soil get depleted.
The miracle about the milpa is that Native American farmers have been using this method for 4,000+ years and the fields are still productive. Though this won’t work on an industrial scale, it can provide clues as to how modern agriculture can adapt ancient methodologies to improve the crops of today.
Benefits of Corn and Beans
Interestingly, corn doesn’t have niacin in a form that humans can use, nor does it have two amino acids that humans need in their diets: lysine and tryptophan. Beans, in fact, have these nutrients. Beans don’t, however, have cysteine or methionine, but maize does. These are mutually beneficial plants!
Beans absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil. Other plants must have nitrogen to grow and survive.
Many Native American societies highly valued the corn and bean plant. In fact, in Pre-Inca societies in South America, archaeologists have found beans stored with pictures of people holding both bean and corn plants.
Later, in the southwestern part of the United States, the Zuni people incorporated beans into boys’ rites of passage. They would have to bring boiled beans that were the color of the particular kiva (a place of religious worship) in which they were celebrating. Thus, the American Southwest is replete with numerous varieties of beans.
A Celebration of Native Food
Here is a great meal idea that incorporates corn, beans and squash. You will have a nutritionally complete meal with vegetable proteins, vitamins and good-for-you fats.
Main Dish: Succotash
You will need:
2 cups fresh or frozen lima beans
6 cups of tap water
2 tbsp. light vegetable oil, such as sesame, olive or canola oil
2 cups fresh or frozen corn (if you use frozen corn or lima beans, let them sit on the kitchen counter for about 30 minutes for quicker cooking)
4-6 stalks of green onions, sliced (I use the light part)
1.5 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
2 tsp. rubbed sage (or use fresh sage!)
2 tbsp. butter, room temperature
1. Boil the 6 cups of water. Put the lima beans in and boil for 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
3. When the oil is warm, add the corn. Stir frequently, and cook for about 5 minutes or until the corn starts to brown slightly. Then, add the green onions.
4. Stir until heated through and reduce heat to low.
5. Drain lima beans and add to the corn and onion mixture. Stir.
6. Add butter, salt, pepper, and sage and mix well.
7. Serve hot.
Making SuccotashClick thumbnail to view full-size
Using a Cast Iron Skillet - Some Benefits
Using a cast iron skillet is great for infusing food with trace amounts of iron. You don't have to worry about any "iron" flakes the way you do with Teflon.
Cast iron cookware typically costs less than other types of cookware.
Plus, cast iron is environmentally friendly: you can recycle it. You may not need to, though, with its reputation for durability. The cast iron pan I used in the recipe pictures was my grandmother's!
Making Mashed SquashClick thumbnail to view full-size
Side dish: Mashed Squash
You will need:
4-6 yellow summer squash, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp butter
Enough water to steam squash
1. Fill the bottom of a large saucepan about 2 inches deep. Set vegetable steamer on top. Bring to a boil. Add squash and cover. Steam for 13-15 minutes.
2. Drain water from pan and place squash in a bowl. With a potato masher (a large fork will work, too), mash the squash. Some water will come out. After thoroughly mashing squash, drain water by putting cover of pan over bowl and letting the water drain out.
3. Add the brown sugar and butter. Mix thoroughly. Serve hot. Add salt and pepper to taste.
More Ideas for Sides:
Serve the succotash and mashed squash with other vegetables such as sliced tomatoes, sliced avocados, cheese, flour tortillas, cornbread or toasted bread.
“Bring more plants into your life. You literally will be eating earth, becoming one with earth’s power and you will have the ability to hear her needs.”2
I think the Native Americans had it right.
11491, p. 221.
2Romancing the Bean, p. 7.
© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun