20 indigenous foods historically and culturally important to North America

To aid in raising awareness of the rich biodiversity of foods native to North America, Food Tank has compiled a list of 20 foods in the region important to the cultures and food security of North Americans.

Courtesy of Julie Larsen Maher/WCS
A bison roams in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

The world’s vast biodiversity of food crops is a result of 3,000 million years of natural biological evolution, and 12,000 years of experimentation by farmers, herders and hunter-gatherers in selecting, collecting and cultivating the best food crops. However, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that since the 1900s, or in just one century, around 75 percent of the world’s plant genetic diversity has been lost.

This unprecedented biodiversity loss is primarily caused by industrial agriculture’s focus on high-yielding crop varieties and monoculture farming, which have increasingly displaced thousands of older, locally-adapted varieties and agricultural traditions from farms worldwide.  A wide plant genetic diversity ensures a resilient food system as it has an increased capacity to withstand changing climatic conditions, water scarcity, or new pests and diseases. As Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity points out, “A system that is biologically varied is endowed with the antibodies to counter dangerous organisms and restore its own equilibrium. A system based on a limited number of varieties, on the other hand, is very fragile.”

Biodiversity erosion threatens not only food availability and ecological balance, but also nutritional quality, and entire cultural and knowledge systems.

In North America, disappearing diversity of cultivated and wild crops has been accompanied with a decline in the nutritional quality of Native American diets, and consequently a growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Traditional food ways, culinary skills, ecological farming practices, and entire cultures are also at risk.

Various initiatives are sprouting up across the continent today to address these issues, to save endangered seeds, to revive traditional knowledge, and to reconnect native communities to the indigenous foods common to the food cultures of their ancestors.

In Tucson, Arizona, nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH, co-founded by Gary Paul Nabhan and Mahina Drees in 1983, conserves ancient seeds of southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Their seed bank currently has around 2,000 varieties, many of which are rare or endangered. Nabhan, a renowned agrarian activist and ethnobiologist, is also the founder of Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance, which brings together various food advocates to identify, restore and celebrate North America’s biologically and culturally diverse food traditions. RAFT is also working on creating a comprehensive list of food species grown by the many indigenous and immigrant communities of the continent.

Environmentalist and Native American activist Winona LaDuke initiated the White Earth Land Recovery Project to help restore the original land base of the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. The project involves protecting indigenous seeds and other food sources, while strengthening the community’s spiritual and cultural heritage. A major goal is to overcome the rampant rates of type-2 diabetes in LaDuke’s Anishinaabe community, where one-third of the population is diabetic. Through her company Native Harvest, LaDuke also sells indigenous American foods like wild rice, corn, and maple syrup.

Similar cataloguing and conservation efforts are carried out by Seed Savers Exchange,Slow Food International’s Ark of Taste, and other organizations.

To aid in raising awareness of the rich biodiversity of foods native to North America, Food Tank has compiled a list of 20 foods in the region important to the cultures and food security of North Americans.

1. Acorns: These wild nuts growing on various species of oak trees were consumed on a daily basis by the Californian natives for thousands of years. Plentiful, highly productive, easy to store, and nutrient-dense, the nuts were central to their diet and daily lives. Acorns are high in calories, magnesium, calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin C. Today, while it does not hold the same dietary centrality for the natives, it continues to be a revered part of their cultural identity.

2. Amaranth: Resistant to drought, heat and cold, this ancient desert plant has been growing in the Andean region for over 4000 years. It was a staple for many indigenous communities in the Americas, until it was banned by conquistadors, which resulted in its decline in rural diets. Amaranth grains are rich in protein, lysine (an amino acid not found in many other grains), vitamins A and C, and fiber. Amaranth greens can also be eaten raw or cooked like spinach, and are a good source of calcium and iron.

3. American Persimmon: While the Asian persimmon is more commonly found at North American grocery stores, a variety of this sweet, pulpy fruit grows in the U.S. as well, from Connecticut to Florida, and west into Kansas. The persimmon, the Latin name of which translates to “food of the gods,” is high in vitamins A and C, fiber and antioxidants, and is low in calories and fats. Its trees are low-maintenance, and the fruit had been used to make cakes, bread, soups, ice cream, and candy by Native Americans and early European settlers. Although not widely commercialized, American Persimmons can befound at nurseries that grow heirloom varieties, or in the burgeoning edible landscaping projects in various parts of North America.

4. Anishinaabe Manoomin (Wild Rice): Wild rice is a semi-aquatic grass that originated in the upper Great Lakes of the U.S. and Canada, and has been growing in the waters of north-central North America for millennia. The Anishinaabe people and other Native Americans customarily hand-harvest the whole grain by canoeing through the rice beds, and using long ricing sticks to knock the ripened seeds into the canoes. Commercially available wild rice differs from this variety, as it is described as “cultivated,” rather than hand-harvested.

According to LaDuke, manoomin is the sacred food of the Anishinaabe, who were instructed in their traditional migration story to find the land where food grew on water. Due to the difficulty in growing it and its low yields per acre, wild rice is usually pricier than other grains. However, it is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, and contains more protein than most other whole grains.

5. Ayocote: This climbing legume belongs to the family of the oldest domesticated plants of Mesoamerica, and was likely domesticated in the Tehucán Valley between 4000 BC and 2000 BC. Ayocotes are used in the traditional Milpa agriculture system, in which corn, squash and beans are grown together in the same field to balance nitrogen levels in the soil. Ayocote beans and roots are used in several Mexican dishes.

6. Bay of Fundy Dulse: This red seaweed variety grows in the intertidal zone of the North Atlantic, and is especially prominent in Canada’s Bay of Fundy. It was once a popular snack food, and an important ingredient in traditional chowders, stews and creams for many First Nations, Arcadians, and early Scottish and Irish settler communities. Since the 1960s, however, the introduction of commercial snack foods and increasing shoreline pollution have led to Dulse’s waning use. However, restaurants today are helping to revive this seaweed by adding it to their dishes.

7. Bison: Bison, or buffalo meat, has been a staple for the Native Americans of the Great Plains for thousands of years, forming an integral part of their cultures and economies.All parts of the bison were traditionally used to make clothing, tipis, soap, tools, etc.Bison meat has lower fat and cholesterol content, and higher nutrition levels than beef, pork or chicken. They are also not usually raised with antibiotics or growth hormones. After coming close to extinction at the end of the 19th century, bison today seems to be experiencing a renewed surge in demand among Americans as a more sustainable alternative to other commonly available meat products.

8. Blue Camas: The blue camas plant grows along the Pacific Northwest, stretching from the Rocky Mountains of Canada down to California and Utah. The plant consists of blue flowers, and carbohydrate and protein-rich root vegetables that were a staple for many Native Americans of the region. After being cooked in a pit oven, the bulbs become edible and sweet in flavor. Harvesting of blue camas declined upon the arrival of European settlers, but the plant may be gaining popularity again today with growing awareness of the importance of indigenous food cultures.

9. Candy Roaster Squash: This squash—long-lasting and tolerant of winter frost—was first bred by the Cherokee tribes of the southern Appalachian Mountains in the 1800s. It is best and sweetest when fully ripe, and used widely in soups, pies, butters and breads. In its native North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee, it is still grown according to the traditional Cherokee practice called “Three Sisters,” in which squash, corn, and beans are grown together in a field to prevent weeds and retain soil moisture.

10. Caribou: For the northern Native Americans like the Athabaskan people of Alaska or the Inuit of the Arctic, caribou have traditionally been an entrenched part of culture and way of life. Caribou was not only hunted for its meat and fat, but the meat and bones were used to make broth, and the skin was made into parkas, boots, socks, blankets and tents. The animals’ tendons also provided sinew, which was used in making fishing nets and other tools. Stories and knowledge of caribou hunting were passed down to children, as a vital part of their shared identity.

11. Carolina Gold Rice: This long grain rice variety was once a beloved ingredient central to the creole cuisine of the Carolina Rice Kitchen. Originally from South Asia, it found its way to the southern Atlantic coast of the U.S. possibly through West Africa. By 1800, it was produced by slave labor on plantations throughout the southern states for export worldwide, becoming an embedded part of the culture and economies of Colonial Carolina and Georgia. Variously described as sweet, starchy, nutty, and earthy in taste, the crop, along with its associated cuisine, began to disappear from the region after the American Civil War. Efforts to revive it began in the 1980s when Savannah plantation owner Dr. Richard Schulze obtained its seeds from a USDA seed bank. Today, nonprofitCarolina Gold Rice Foundation and South-Carolina’s Anson Mills are working to keep the once-cherished rice on the market.

12. ChayaThis evergreen plant is native to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and was a staple of the Mayas for several centuries. The plant grows in hot, humid and bright climates, and is resistant to insects, heavy rains and drought. Chaya is rich in nutritional and medicinal properties. It is a source of protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, phosphorous, and many minerals and enzymes. It also helps in digestion, disinfection, regulating blood pressure, and reducing cholesterol levels.

13. Chiltepin Pepper: Chiltepin Pepper is the only wild chile native to the U.S., and is also known as the “mother of all peppers”. Owing to sustainable growers of the pepper, the chile continues to be an important part of cuisine along the U.S.-Mexican border, where it has been traditionally consumed as food and medicine. It is very spicy and pungent in flavor, and can be eaten sun-dried, added to cheese and ice creams, fermented into sauces, and pickled with wild oregano, garlic and salt.

14. Cholla Cactus Flower Buds: Desert communities of southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico have been eating cholla buds for hundreds or thousands of years. Cholla harvest season was traditionally a time of celebration and togetherness for the Tohono O’odham people of the Sonoran Desert. Cholla habitats, and knowledge of harvesting, preparing, storing and cooking cholla buds are endangered today as their consumption has been declining since the introduction of modern foods and lifestyles. Cholla cactus plants can survive months or years of drought, and the buds are very high in calcium, soluble fiber, pectin and carbohydrates. They have a mild vegetable flavor akin to asparagus, and are nutritionally beneficial for elders, nursing mothers and for diabetes prevention.

15. Louisiana Mirliton: Mirliton is a green squash that arrived to Louisiana from Haiti after the 1804 Slave Revolt, and has been a staple in Louisiana cuisine for over 120 years. This Caribbean variety was adapted to suit sub-tropical climates and soils of the Gulf Coast. After facing threat of disappearance due to the introduction of commercial varieties and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the mirliton is today the subject of various conservation efforts.

16. Mesquite Beans: The Mesquite tree of the legume family grows in southwestern U.S. Mesquite beans and seeds can be ground into meal and used to make cakes, flat bread or thicken stews. Tea is made from mesquite flowers and leaves, the latter of which has laxative and headache-relieving properties. Sap from mesquite trees, when diluted with water, can be used as an eye wash, sunburn lotion, or an antiseptic. Mesquite beans are a good source of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and calcium.

17. Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads: The ostrich fern fiddlehead variety growing in northeastern North America is the only native Canadian vegetable that has beensuccessfully commercialized. It was likely originally harvested by the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq communities of eastern Canada and Maine. Fiddleheads have a taste similar to asparagus, with an added nutty quality, and are advised to be boiled or steamed before using in any dish. The ostrich fern is a source of protein, manganese and iron, and is high in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.

18. Pawpaws: Of the tropical Annonaceae (custard apple) plant family, the pawpaw fruit is the largest edible fruit indigenous to North America. It has a tropical flavor reminiscent of a mix between mangoes and bananas. It was grown and eaten by Native Americans and early European settlers, and was even the subject of folk songs. The fruit never managed to catch retailers’ attention partly due to its short shelf life, but there are a handful of scientists and growers around North America who are trying to improve its quality. Superior to apples, peaches and grapes in its content of vitamins and minerals, pawpaws can be used to make bread, pies, jam, ice cream, sorbet and even beer.

19Ramón seed: All parts of the Ramón tree, including the fruit seeds, foliage, timber and bark, were once valuable parts of Maya cultures as food, medicine, animal feed and wood. The seeds are considered superfoods due to their richness in fiber, calcium, vitamins, minerals, folic acid, and essential amino acids like tryptophan. In times of drought or shortage, they were mixed with corn by the Maya to ensure sufficient food availability.

20. Roy’s Calais Flint Corn: Originally cultivated by the Abenaki or the Sokoki people of Vermont, this maize variety was later adopted by early European settler farmers. It is able to grow well in areas like the U.S.-Canadian border that have cold climates and short growing seasons. It is considered to be more flavorful and rich than other industrially produced corn, and is used to make cornmeal, flour and hominy, the latter of which is high in niacin and complex protein.    

Indigenous crops have provided communities with nourishment for thousands of years. Traditional and indigenous varieties of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains are not only typically highly nutritious, but also provide much-needed diversity in peoples’ diets, particularly in the developing world. Food Tank will regularly feature indigenous crops from around the world, highlighting the important roles they play in providing nutrients, improving food security, raising incomes, and making staple crops taste good. ​​

This story originally appeared on Food Tank.

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