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First Nations food feeds the world

Thursday May 3, 2012

Although the three sisters, corn, beans and squash, are commonly known as First Nation foods, most people do not realize most of their diet is comprised of First Nation food.

For instance, the turkey, potatoes, squashes, sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, cranberries and pumpkin pies served at Thanksgiving all originate in the Americas.

“Most people do not realize tomatoes came from this side of the ocean,” said John Croutch, an Aboriginal chef from the Toronto area. “People equate it with Italian food — tomato sauce.
Potatoes are from South America; they are not an Irish food.”

Wild turkeys can still be found throughout North America and people in the Andes were cultivating about 3,000 varieties of potatoes when the Spanish arrived.

“The people who came on the Mayflower hadn’t known there were turkeys here so they bought turkeys in Spain, which the Spanish of course brought over (to Europe from the Americas), and brought them over on the Mayflower hoping to breed them here in Massachusetts,” said John Boran, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. “Of course, they were greatly surprised when they found out they were already here.”

Sweet potatoes are native to Mexico, as are tomatoes, varieties of which are also found in the Andes. Green, red, orange and yellow bell peppers are native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America and cranberries and pumpkins are native to North America.
Squashes, corn and beans were planted together by the Iroquois to maintain moisture in the soil and promote transfer of nitrogen from the bean roots to the corn, which was domesticated about 7,000 years ago.

Indigenous foods often healthier

Croutch said information about indigenous foods is available in university journals, including a 1927 report on about 200 plants used by the Ojibwa in the Minnesota and Wisconsin area by Frances Densmore: How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine and Crafts.

“Some of the journals actually show you the difference in food quality,” Croutch said. “By eating wild game, you’re getting a much better quality meat. Whatever that animal is eating, that’s what you’re eating.”

Even our addictions are fueled by First Nations food, as both chocolate, made from the cacao bean, and tobacco are from the Americas.

“Recently I’ve started to drink Mayan chocolate,” Boran said. “They told me ‘don’t mix it with milk.’ The moment you mix it with milk, you negate all of the good things milk can do for you and all of the benefits of the chocolate.”

Boran said the Mayan chocolate drink is mixed with water and aerated.

“It’s the best chocolate I’ve ever had in my life,” Boran said. “You don’t miss the sugar and the chocolate flavour is so good and pure. It actually kind of ruined me because now when I have other chocolate, it doesn’t taste like chocolate. All I taste is the sugar.”
Boran said the tobacco used today is a mix of two different varieties.

“The traditional tobacco is very strong,” Boran said. “You cannot inhale that. It’s to smoke to the creator, not to ingest.”

Many people who follow vegetarian diets use a variety of beans from the Americas, including kidney beans, navy beans, pinto beans and black beans, in combination with a grain to provide protein for their diet. Many also use the First Nation grains of quinoa and amaranth as substitutes to mainstream grains such as wheat.

Without First Nation foods, many dishes from around the world would be unrecognizable, including Indonesian satays, Indian curries and even spaghetti and pizza. Chili pepper, originally from Latin America, provides the spicy flavour associated with Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian and Ethiopian cuisine while tomato is commonly associated with spaghetti and pizza.

“I enjoy all kinds of food, but I found the hot (chili) peppers to be really beneficial,” Boran said. “I’ve heard East Indian and African people say these (chili peppers) are native African, and they aren’t — they’re native to the Americas.”

Boran said there is a lot of confusion about what foods come from where, especially foods from the Americas.

“When it’s not (from the Americas), people seem to know where it’s from, but if it originated in the Americas, there is a hesitancy to acknowledge that,” Boran said.

Common fruits often from North America

Many of our common fruits are from the Americas, including the blueberry, strawberry, raspberry and blackberry. And America’s largest fruit, the creamy-fleshed paw paw, is credited with saving explorers Lewis and Clark from starvation.

“They (paw paws) taste like a mixed fruit drink,” Boran said. “When I have them, I just have this desire to cut them up and put them in a blender with ice cubes.”
Boran said they are oblong shaped and range in size from larger than a pear to almost football-sized.

“They can be different colours — they can be reddish tinged like apples,” Boran said. “The ones I’ve usually had are greenish, and when they’re ripe they’re just turning a tiny bit yellow. Inside the flesh is pale orange.”

Foods from the Americas have led to population booms in other parts of the world after they were introduced, such as casava (tapioca or manioc) and corn in Africa, peanuts in Africa and Asia and potatoes in Europe.

“Napoleon could not have fed his army or had all of his wars without the potato,” Boran said.
“That’s what they depended on; that made up his diet.”

Other foods from the Americas include maple syrup, avocado, asparagus, papaya, guava, pineapple, passion fruit, cashews, pecans, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, vanilla, wild rice and allspice.

Croutch wants to see First Nations people eating more of their own foods in the future.
“Our foods have fed the world,” Croutch said. “Why aren’t they feeding us. We should be eating our foods in their rawest form.”

Croutch said the traditional knowledge of foods in Canada have been lost over time due to residential school and a loss of lands.

“You can dig up the roots of cattail and eat them just like a potato,” Croutch said. “We’ve lost so much, and I think it’s time we reclaimed that.”

Croutch said First Nations people never had a problem with diabetes prior to European contact.
“We’ve forgotten our ways, we’ve forgotten our stewardship of the land, we’ve forgotten our foods. We have to reclaim that.”

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