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Native American Ingenuity: Food Edition

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The scope of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., is mind-boggling—825,000 items representing more than 12,000 years of history—and one of the really fun aspects of the place is learning about all the important things Native Americans invented. In 2004, National Geographic put together a list of 16 Native American innovations—including duck decoys and syringes—to celebrate the opening of the museum. The NMAI sent This Week From Indian Country Today a longer list of things Native Americans invented or discovered. Which then led us to American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations, by Kay Marie Porterfield and Emory Dean Keoke. With these great resources as inspiration, we’ve done our best to parse thousands of years of Native American discoveries into categories. This week the focus is on food. Bon appétit.

Avocados: Farmers in the Valley of Mexico, a highlands plateau in Central Mexico, first domesticated the avocado in 3400 B.C. Spanish priests later banned the avocado tree from any mission garden. Why? They thought that, due to the fruit’s “feminine” appearance, avocados were aphrodisiacs. Today, avocados are a large part of California’s GDP, bringing in $300 million a year.

Beans: Indians of the Valley of Mexico domesticated the common bean between 5200 B.C. and 3400 B.C. South American Indians also domesticated beans. The only kinds of beans not mastered first by American Indian farmers are garbanzo, adzuki and mung.

Blueberries: North American Indians gathered and ate fresh and dried blueberries, one of the few fruits native to North America. For thousands of years, they gathered blueberries from forests and bogs, consuming them fresh and preserving them for use later. Blueberries were revered due to their beauty—the blossom end of each berry forms a five-pointed star; tribe elders would talk of the Great Spirit sending “star berries” to feed children during famine. Blueberries were also used as medicine, as a dye, and even dried and used in a beef jerky called sautauthig.

Blue-Green Algae: A staple of the Aztec diet—they harvested it from lakes, skimming the surface with ropes, and then dried the algae into cakes, which they’d eat. These cakes, or bricks, would be edible for a year, and the Aztecs would often eat them with tortillas or toasted corn. Sometimes they’d combine it with chilies or tomatoes to make a sauce. The Spanish conquistadores thought of the algae as slime and refused to eat it. Today, people pay top dollar at health-food stores for blue-green algae, which is up to 70 percent protein.

Cashews: The cashew was first grown in what are now Mexico, Brazil, Peru and the West Indies. Indians in the Amazon Basin used cashew tree wood to make their homes because it was a natural insect repellent. The Cuna Indians used the bark of cashew trees to make tea for asthma, congestion, colds, thrush and to stem diarrhea. Old cashew tree leaves were applied to burns, put into tea for sore throats, and its bark, juice and nut oil was said to cure corns, calluses and warts. The Portuguese transported the nuts to their colonies in East Africa and what are now India and Indonesia, where they became an important part of their medicinal resources. Today, the cashew fruit has taken on yet another role, as an aphrodisiac for India’s Ayurvedic medicine practitioners.

Chocolate: You can thank the Maya for one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind. The Maya began cultivating cacao trees in about 200 B.C., and in around 1 A.D. they invented a four-step chemical process to remove a lot of the bitterness from the cacao beans by opening the pods and scooping out the seeds, which are encased in a sweet, white pulp. Then they fermented the seeds for several days until the sugar was converted to lactic and acetic acid. This removed the bitterness and released the compounds that produced the flavor when the beans were roasted. Once beans were roasted, the Maya removed the thin shells and ground the beans into a paste. What did they do with this paste? They made hot chocolate. Both the Maya and Aztec used chocolate in religious ceremonies (some Maya were even buried with clay chocolate vessels), so it is appropriate that the Latin name of the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.”

Corn Syrup: Indians of Mesoamerica and the Northeastern U.S. used it—much more sparingly than we do—putting it into foods they wanted sweetened. Colonists in the 1700s reported that North American Indians were using a clear, sweet syrup made from corn stalks as a sweetener. They increased the sugar content of the stalks by removing the newly developed ears from corn planted solely for that purpose. Today, corn syrup is manufactured from kernels, and because it doesn’t crystallize and holds moisture, it’s now in everything from ice cream to ketchup to baked goods.

Instant Foods: If you’ve ever had refried beans, thank the Maya. Their cooks ground parched beans into a powder that they then reconstituted with water. Thank the Incas for creating the first instant mashed potatoes—although they had to work a little harder than just adding water to a saucepan, heating and adding potato flakes. The Incas took their surplus potato crop and placed it on the ground overnight. The cold mountain temperature froze the tubers while the water within would slowly vaporize in the low air pressure. The Incas would accelerate this process by walking on the potatoes to squeeze out moisture. They would then store the finished product whole or ground into a potato flour to be used for bread, which could be kept indefinitely. When reconstituted, either as ckaya (freeze-dried sweet potatoes) or chuño (freeze-dried “bitter” potatoes) it was used in soups and stews. To this day it remains a mainstay of the Andean diet.

Maple Syrup: What would we put on our flapjacks and waffles if it weren’t for the Anishinabe and other tribes of the Northeast U.S., who collected sap from sugar maple trees? They dropped red-hot rocks into bark containers filled with sap. They also made maple sugar. The Iroquois and Chippewa taught American colonists how to tap trees and make syrup and sugar. Unlike refined sugar, pure maple syrup contains potassium, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium, and iron, as well as B vitamins, including niacin, biotin and folic acid.

Peppers: Sweet (bell) peppers and chili peppers, mainstays of the modern diet for millions, were some of the first crops Indian farmers in the Valley of Mexico domesticated. They bred dozens of types of chilies, ranging from mild to four-alarm hot. Indian farmers would pick and choose which types of chilies to grow. Mesoamerican chili growers became experts at regulating the amount of capsaicin through seed selection, as a dominant gene in the pepper controls the amount of capsaicin inside of it, the active component in chili peppers that makes them hot (the component is technically considered an irritant for mammals, producing a sensation of burning in any tissue that it comes in contact with.) They also knew that poor soil or hot temperatures stressed the peppers and yielded a more fiery flavor, which they manipulated to produce the kind of pepper they desired.

Pineapple: Ancient farmers in what is today Brazil and Paraguay tamed this spiky fruit, and spread the pineapple across South America, Mesoamerica and the Caribbean. Eventually Columbus got in on the act, finding it in the Indies and bringing it back to Europe, and eventually the Spanish introduced the fruit into what are today the Philippines, Hawaii, Zimbabwe and Guam.

Popcorn: Native Americans saved the seeds from parent corn plants that had the desired characteristics and planted them to develop many varieties of corn, including one that popped when it was heated as far back as 3600 B.C. Often, Indians would push a stick through a cob of dried corn and hold it to a fire. The Moche of what is modern northern Peru invented pottery popcorn poppers nearly 2,000 years ago.

Potatoes: Nope, they didn’t come from Ireland. The Native peoples of the Andes were the first to domesticate the potato around 8000 B.C. By the time Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1531, they had 3,000 types of potatoes, including white and sweet potatoes. For bonus points, Mohawk cook George Crum, who worked at a resort in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is thought to have invented the potato chip. Railroad mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt supposedly sent his fried potatoes back to the kitchen because they were too thick. Mr. Crum retaliated by sending them back as paper-thin slices.

Sunflowers: The Hidatsa of the Great Plains harvested the highly nutritional seeds, parching and grinding them, then shaping them into balls. Little League baseball players would thank them a few centuries later.

Vanilla: The indigenous people of modern-day Vera Cruz, Mexico, developed a complex process that turned the pods of the vanilla orchid into the ubiquitous flavoring used all over the world today. They managed to keep the process secret from the Spanish for a few hundred years, but eventually the “beans” were spilled to conquistador Hernán Cortés, who brought both vanilla and chocolate back to Europe in the 16th century. Europeans couldn’t cultivate the plant due to the symbiotic and regional relationship between the tlilxochitl vine that produced the vanilla orchid and the local species of Melipona bee. Finally, in the mid-19th century, Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren figured out how to pollinate the plant artificially. Four years later, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old French-owned slave in Sainte-Suzanne, France, figured out that by using a stick or a blade of grass he could hand-pollinate the plant much faster than by Morren’s method by lifting the rostellum (the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma) and then, with his thumb, smearing the sticky pollen in the anther all over the stigma. Global cultivation of vanilla was born.

Zucchini: Italian name, Native heritage. Indian farmers domesticated this summer squash in Oaxaca, Mexico, with archaeologists finding domesticated squash seeds in a cave in 8700 B.C. Squash was believed to be one of the first American Indian plants that was domesticated—farmers from the Eastern Woodlands of North America did it around 2700 B.C. These farmers considered zucchini one of the “three sisters,” along with beans and corn, which they used to create a balanced diet.

Hungry yet?