Monday, November 24, 2014

Meatless Monday: Three Amazing Sisters

Many of us will feast on dishes of corn, beans, and squash this Thursday, just as  the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag did on what we consider the “First Thanksgiving.” 

The Three Sisters are depicted
on the Native American dollar.
However, the corn the Pilgrims and Native Americans ate during that three-day celebration in 1621 was likely a bright-colored variety, and the squash and beans would also be unfamiliar to most of us. This link lists a number of heirloom varieties linked to Native American agriculture.

The Native Americans had been growing squash in combination with beans and corn for centuries before the Europeans arrived. They called the crops “The Three Sisters” and considered them a gift from the Gods. You can read the Mohawk version of the legend here

Squash is the oldest of the three crops. Fragments of domesticated varieties of Cucurbita pepo (the species to which the acorn squash and pumpkins belong) discovered in a Mexican cave in 1996 have been dated to be some 10,000 years old

Also around 10,000 years ago, farmers in what is now Mexico began selecting and planting grains from a wild grass called teosinte. Each year they saved seeds from the plants with the most desirable properties, and, over time, what we know as corn evolved. The identity of corn’s ancestor was a mystery until scientists in the field of genetic archaeology discovered that the DNA of teosinte and maize are very much alike. Corn was introduced to North American tribes via trade networks sometime around 1000 A.D.

Beans were first domesticated in what is now Mexico between 4200 and 3400 BC and arrived in the American Southwest through trade around 1500 BC. Over time, through seed selection, bush varieties requiring less water were developed.

Grown together as “companion crops,” beans, corn, and squash enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The corn serves as a pole or support for the beans. The intertwining squash provides shade at the base, helping to retain moisture in the soil and to keep down weeds, and the prickly hairs of its vine serve to deter pests. Beans help to replenish the nitrogen the corn removes from the soil with nitrogen they fix from the air. 

There are nutritional benefits to combining the crops as well. Corn is missing two amino acids, lysine and tryptophan, but has the one amino acid, methionine, that  beans lack. Thus, beans and corn, when eaten together, in a dish such as succotash, provide protein of a high nutritional value

Three Sisters Garden in New Haven, CT, 2011
Planting the Three Sisters is a tradition that continues to this day, as in this urban garden in New Haven, Connecticut. A successful Three Sisters garden requires certain conditions and careful planning. Cornell University has provided a detailed guide for gardeners and educators who want to recreate this method of farming. 

This Thursday let’s remember those who inhabited our country before the Europeans arrived and give special thanks for the Three Sisters garden.

Happy Meatless Monday. 

Good health to you, and to the planet.

On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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