Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The milpa: more to learn from Indians

The article in the New York Times last week about Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman was so good, so inspiring, that I just have to pass it on: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/dining/new-native-american-cuisine.html?emc=edit_th_20160817&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=66175474

I was born and lived my first ten years in Minnesota, so the talk of walleye, deer, and game birds, chokecherries and wild rice is all familiar. Not so the other wild greens and spices that Sherman has traced back to tribal usage and brings now to sophisticated tables.

What I know about American Indian cuisine is small—because the subject is so big. But the article reminded me that the role of Indian agriculture and the adoption of Indian foods worldwide are constantly overlooked. I know I have said this in other posts, but it is always worth repeating: over half of today’s world food crops started in the Americas! Where would Russia, Norway, and Ireland be without potatoes, Italy without tomatoes, Africa without cassava (manioc)? The Americas are huge, and the food gifts to the rest of the world are immense—think beans, squash, maize, sweet potato and more, which, in the decades after Columbus, changed the faces (and tastes) of Europe, Africa, and Asia. American Indians before the Europeans were not all hunter-gatherers, and most who hunted and gathered also farmed.

This piece on Indian cooking got me thinking in another direction too, the milpa. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann describes “maize milpas” in Central America in which a dozen plants are grouped in a small field. A dozen plants that feed each others’ needs as they provide a balanced diet to their farmers. Some milpas have been productively “farmed” for 4,000 years!

Milpa four months after planting the maiz canopy shades
beans, squash, macal, amaranths and quiniopods and
much more. Credit: MacduffEverton.com
One of the earliest images of Indian North America which many of us learned as third or fourth graders mimicking the first Thanksgiving is of an Indian named Squanto hunched over a hole in the ground in which he is placing a fish in preparation for planting corn, beans, and squash. The fish will succor the plants, the corn will provide stalk for the beans to climb, and the squash will cover the ground and keep down weeds and enhance moisture for it all. Squanto was really Tisquantum, and the scene which we all saw was about indigenous American agriculture. There is no doubt in my mind that there were other useful plants in Tisquantum’s milpa—herbs and medicinals, plants the English probably saw as weeds.

The English and Spanish adapted the American plants, took many back to Europe, and planted them all in rows on both sides of the ocean. They ignored the milpa, and one can argue that the agricultural journey that they launched led to monocultures that eventually depends on hybrids and fierce amounts of chemical fertilizers while ignoring companion planting and even the related idea of crop rotation.

Jack Weatherford, in Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World, says that North Americans continued to plant corn in hills until the 1930s. Even without the entire milpa, Weatherford argues that moving away from hilling has increased soil erosion in the Mississippi River system dramatically.

Mann recognizes that the milpa might be impractical in today’s large-scale agriculture, but suggests we might learn a thing or two from “gardens” that have been around for thousands of years.

And, I’ll add, from chefs like Sean who are exploring the same cultural legacy.

# # #

No comments :

Post a Comment