Ancient foods, modern miracles by Elizabeth Morse Read
On her first night in America, my then 14-year old English grandmother was served corn-on the-cob. She had no idea how to eat it until she watched her American cousins pick it up in their hands and start chomping away. This was what cattle and pigs in England were fed, and here she was, eating it for dinner. The Plimouth Colony Pilgrims were probably just as baffled when they first encountered the local foods and recipes that their native American neighbors introduced them to back in the early17th century. And yet these original, aboriginal foods have become part of American lore (especially at holiday time) and have spread across the country and the world as major sources of nutrition. Read on for a primer on how the native foods of the New World have traveled and changed the world.
The Three Sisters: Corn, beans and squash With the help of English-speaking native Americans like Squanto, the Pilgrims learned about “companion planting methods” the natives used, whereby corn (maize), pole beans and local squashes were planted together on a mound for maximum production 26
(with a dead fish thrown in for fertilizer). The corn provided natural “poles” for the beans, which provided nitrogen-enrichment for the soil, and the spreading vines and leaves of the squashes provided a natural mulch to prevent weeds and insects. These “three sisters,” when combined, provided a healthful complement of nutritious foods, as well as a source of dried foodstuffs used during cold and hungry months. So significant were these “three sisters” to America’s development that they are featured on the reverse side of the US “Sacagawea” dollar coin. And, to this day, these “New World vegetables” have become major food sources globally, as well as traditional fare at winter dinner tables across the nation.
etable eaten fresh or mixed with other native American vegetables, as opposed to “field corn,” which is not harvested until the corn kernels are hard and dry, ready for storage as feed for livestock or for grinding into cornmeal. Early settlers quickly adopted cornmeal as a substitute for wheat flour, and our traditional regional recipes are the result. The oldest (and still-operating) corn grist mill on the South Coast is Kenyon’s, in Usquepaug, Rhode Island. Their products are still sold on supermarket shelves throughout southern New England. It is considered the premier product when making regional and holiday specialties like cornbread stuffing, muffins, jonny cakes or Indian pudding. (see sidebar)
Knee high by the Fourth of July
Although beans have been cultivated worldwide for millennia, the ancient
Sweet corn (also known as Indian corn) is the soft and sugary immature veg-
February 2010 / The South Coast Insider
Beans, beans, the musical fruit
Continued on page 28
Published on Jan 25, 2010