Traditional food: diverse and nutritious
Gathering, growing, harvesting and preparing food used to be central to our lives. I was a child of the 60’s and my brother and I spent our summers in rural East Texas where my aunt and uncle’s farm was located. I remember going out in the garden with my Aunt Natie and helping her pick the vegetables for our lunch and supper. With her little paring knife she would cut okra, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes off the plants and gather them in her apron. I would help her dig out root vegetables and onions as well. I also remember shelling a lot of peas and shucking corn for every meal. If we came early enough there would still be berries on the brambles along the fence. Later in the summer, my uncle would take us out in the fields and teach us how to pick a ripe melon. He would cut pieces of sugar cane for us to chew out the sweetness and spit out the pulp. We also got to go up there for Christmas. In the winter Uncle Jessie grew greens and Aunt Natie would supplement the greens with vegetables that she had put up (canned) in the fall. We gathered and cracked out the pecans for her pecan pies. I also remember watching both my uncles dress out deer they had hunted. Venison roasts and ground venison mixed with wild hog sausages were common meals in winter, as well as fish and fowl. Both my grandmother and aunt were the best cooks I knew. They prepared three hearty and mostly healthy meals (gravy excluded) every day. All the activities surrounding food were a large part of the day.
This intimate connection with food, plants and wildlife has been a central part of human culture and existence for millennia. Today, many people eat out for the majority of their meals and when they do cook it is often a packaged or microwaved pre-prepared meal. We don’t put as much of our time, thought and energy into our food as we used to.
Our ancestors had a much more diverse and nutritious diet than most urban dwellers of today especially in the United States. In terms of grains, agribusiness focuses on wheat, corn and rice. Those and potatoes are our staples. Iceberg lettuce, genetically designed for long shelf life has the nutritional value of a paper towel, but is found in most of the salads we eat along with greenhouse tomatoes. We eat a lot of corn fed beef and chickens raised in unhealthy, inhumane conditions. With the global transportation of food, we can eat most fruits anytime of the year.
Our ancestors ate what was seasonal. I recently read an interesting article on native foods. These include agave, chia seeds, cholla, acorn flour, prickly pear, amaranth, sunflowers, peppers and more. They made teas from rose hips, lemon berries, sage, stinging nettle, dandelions, and sassafras. There are many health benefits from these food sources. There is also the benefit of physically gathering, planting, tending and harvesting local foods keeping one from becoming sedentary. Working the garden gets people outdoors and moving. And it turns out, provides more diverse and nutritious diet.
Cholla buds pack a nutrient punch with their highly absorbable calcium, a boon for lactose-intolerant people. The slow-release mesquite and acorn are two of the most effective foods for controlling blood sugar levels and diabetes. Chia seeds are high in protein, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids, and their mucilage is of great assistance to the digestive system. Prickly pear juice can alleviate musculo-skeletal inflammation, sage provides a dose of antioxidants, and rose hips and lemonade berries are a rich source of vitamin C.
Another way to revitalize a relationship with native foods is to reject to the industrialized food chain and all that it represents—the multinational corporate control of seeds, production of genetically modified foods, and the promotion of unsustainable agricultural practices damaging to all species and to the earth that sustains us. For public health worker, Abe Sanchez, it’s a daily practice to cultivate consciousness about the foods he eats to maintain optimum health. “Native foods sustained indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Native foods are our future. But we have to make choices. We have to be disciplined. We have to be aware of what we’re putting in our bodies to prevent chronic illness, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure. And native foods will help us prevent that.”
In Recovering the Sacred, environmental activist Winona LaDuke writes that “the recovery of the people is tied to the recovery of food, since food itself is medicine: not only for the body, but for the soul, for the spiritual connection to history, ancestors, and the land.” People speak of the necessity for a major shift to a sustainable society from our unsustainable and ultimately destructive way of life. We have the opportunity to learn from people whose ancestors were here for thousands of years, who knew how to protect and honor the earth. Their work offers hope, inspiration, and healing for all of us.