Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Eating foods native to the Americas

Cinco de Mayo, as many people know, is a day where Mexicans in the United States celebrate their heritage. The date originally commemorated the victory of the Mexican army over the French forces back in the 1800s (and, no, is not Mexican independence day, which is in September).

This year I decided to celebrate all week by eating only foods native to the Americas. This is both for personal and altruistic reasons.

1) I have a number of dietary restrictions that relate to my genetic background. As someone with Mexican heritage myself, I am unable to eat most dairy or wheat products. The ability to tolerate gluten and lactose evolved in European populations where grain and dairy was their main food source for many thousands of years. Sadly these genes did not get passed on to me. If you want to know more about the argument for eating foods that your ancestors ate, read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (To be reviewed more formally in a later post).

2) Eating foods native to the Americans means that I'll be eating locally! (For the most part, I've assumed that the reader is familiar with the arguments for eating locally, although I may specifically address this in a later post.)

It is surprising how many fruits and veggies originate from the Americas. Here is a short list of the most common commercially available foods (there are many, many more which are not domestically cultivated, so are not common in grocery stores, such as guavas and prickly pears). Corn, beans, squash, tomato, avocado, chili peppers, potatoes, peanuts, pecans, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, chocolate, vanilla, maple syrup, and agave (as syrup or tequila!). Of course, the native people also had access to other food stuffs that are found worldwide, such as meat (fowl, fish, and herd animals like deer),  honey, and leafy greens.

With only a few exceptions from this list (like onion and lime) I'm making a whole slew of tasty dishes! (Chicken tortilla soup, vegan enchiladas [stuffed with squash, black beans, bell peppers, and salsa], roasted potatoes, fish tacos with avocado, turkey chili, and so on).

What is even better is that this experiment has been educational and thought provoking. I recently read about the "Three Sisters" myth. Native Americans planted their three main crops of corn, squash, and beans together because they grew better together than apart. This triad became known as the three sisters, and several myths developed to explain the phenomenon. Today we call this companion planting or interplanting, and modern scientists have only just recently begun to understand why interplanting is so beneficial. To my mind, this makes Native Americans the first to practice sustainable agriculture.

I hope this inspires you to experiment with your own local food cuisine! Recipes to be posted later this week!