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McIndian country; Whither the whole grains?

PORTLAND, Ore. - Instead of the "great man" theory of history, consider
Victoria de Grazia's new idea - the "great bargain" theory.

In her 2005 book "America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe,"
published by The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, de Grazia argued
that an empire can spread in much more subtle ways than mere war.
Homogenization has come to more than milk, the author concluded.

The quaint charm and uniqueness of European villages, locales, and regions
is slowly but surely being displaced by corporate behemoths hawking
uninspiring goods. From clothes to movies to food, people are lining up for
common fare. The food wrappers are colorful, and they make a satisfying
crinkle, too. Besides, the stuff is cheap and it saves everyone a lot of
time - precious time they can turn around and use to watch television.

"Tsk, tsk," we say. What suckers, those Europeans. Here they had cultures
that were the envy of the world and now they're throwing away their
treasures for a mess of pottage. But what about Indian country? At the very
least, the report from the whole grains front is not encouraging. Think
about it.

The Northwest tribes used to eagerly watch the hillsides in spring and
summer for the bright yellow flowers that heralded the time to go out and
harvest the annual supply of starchy food. While not a grain, the biscuit
roots or couse roots provided a source of fiber and carbohydrates that was
full of nutrition and flavor. In addition to roasting the roots fresh and
feasting on them, the women mashed and shaped them into small cakes that
they dried in the sun for year-round use.

Tribes in the northern Great Lakes region followed suit with their staple
carb - the revered wild rice. Ojibwa, Chippewa and Algonquin: all the
people in the area enjoyed this whole, unadulterated grain for thousands
and years, and they still do. The dark, robust grain has a nutty taste and
is full of nutrition. Hand-harvested and painstaking winnowed, the
wholesome grain has gone the distance.

Similarly, the Southwest tribes created a corn culture that stole the show,
starring blue corn and white, red, sweet roasting ears, complete with a
dazzling cuisine. Blue corn dumplings, piki bread, hominy stew, Hopi popped
corn and corn cakes are some of the more popular foods.

These are quite different from the very-adulterated breakfast cereal
cornflakes, in which manufacturers remove the fiber- and nutrient-rich
outer layers of the corn kernels and leave the starchy inner kernel to be
cooked, rolled and toasted before adding an assortment of synthetic
vitamins and flavorings - particularly sugar and salt.

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Well, you get the message. It might be easy to grab a box of something from
the shelf, but watch it. Not only will it cost plenty, you'll be getting an
inferior product that slowly but surely is usurping the old ways. Even
fry-bread is made with white flour - perish the thought that a brown speck
of whole-wheat might taint it. It's the same with the mile-high cinnamon
rolls and golden doughnuts many pueblo women make so proudly.

The question is how to save Indian country? Gone are the days when
full-time gathering enabled families to survive without the market. And the
kids and grandkids have developed tastes for the refined cereals and breads
and goodies. It makes it tough.

That said, even the regular stores carry whole-wheat flour - the coarser
bread flour, if not the lighter pastry style. And a little prowling often
turns up whole grains like millet, quinoa and kasha in bulk bins.

Finding the products is only half the battle, though. Daring to cook and
bake with them comes next. And it does take a little doing. Still, by
making the transition slowly, Linda Canyon, Cherokee and Alongquin, of
Williams, Ariz., found that her family got into the taste of whole-wheat
flour right along with her.

"My frybread used to be all white. Then I went to half [white] and half
[whole-wheat], and now I'm at 100 percent whole-wheat. I use the pastry
flour because it's a finer grind. My little boy loves it," she said.

"I'd never go back to white now. In fact, didn't we used to make paste out
of it when we were kids? It might make a great glue, but I want to give my
family something more nutritious."

Canyon also makes hot cereals from a range of whole grains. "This was a
problem at first, too," she said. "But once I learned how to add in fresh
and dried fruits and all kinds of nuts, we've all started to really look
forward to these breakfasts," she said. "And buying these grains in bulk is
way cheap. I save a lot on my food bill and have the satisfaction of
knowing I'm taking good care of us at the same."

The "great bargain" theory? In Canyon's case, she decided to have the
bargains be on her side instead of the corporate world's. That way she has
the money for her family's annual trip back to Oklahoma. And while she's
there, you can be sure she'll rattle the cage when it comes time to make
the frybread.