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You want to say Chocolate in Nahuatl (Aztec)?  This is SO cool:  http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=xocolatl

Xocolatl was always reserved for the royal court before the arrival of the Spanish.

Hueytlatoani Matecuhzoma, Rey de los Mexicas de 1502 a 1520- aka Montezuma, if you have read ‘Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook’- served this food of the gods in golden goblets.  It was definitely not your gamma’s can of Hersey’s Chocolate Syrup (remember those?).  “Cacao beans had been roasted, ground, then mixed with corn meal, vanilla, peppers, spices, and herbs.” This is actually more or less correct- yay for Betty Crocker.  And Betty also correctly notes that cacao beans served as currency in the primarily cashless economy of the Aztec empire.

I visited Teotihuacan a little over a year ago and was able to climb the Temple of the Sun with a friend from Fiji and a Maori woman visiting from New Zealand.  Those Aztecs knew what time it was and they made some pretty big clocks and calendars to keep everything on schedule.  They drank their chocolate out of solid gold goblets, which were probably melted down and are now probably adorning the alter of the cathedral in Barcelona or something.

Around the time of the Quincentennial (1992), Peruvian people on the other side of the Equator made a collective statement and demanded of Spain the approximately One Trillion dollars worth of silver alone that was stolen from a mountain in their ancestral domains.  Before Columbus arrived and so rudely interrupted everyone’s civilizations they had been engaging in marvelous, sophisticated agricultural development in the middle of the Amazonian region, terraforming the earth with terra preta.   Of course at the time all of Europe was primarily a gold-based economy, and the Far East was strictly silver, and had been for about 200-300 years already since the Dutch Bourse was founded.  Looking back a century or two before that, the Champagne Fairs had previously confirmed that China and India preferred to trade in silver rather than gold as the precious metal underpinning the economies of their numerous kingdoms and empires.

In this continent, the Aztecs could eat their currency if need be- and that’s an interesting contrast to King Midas, who was not able to eat the food he turned to gold with a touch of his hand.  Not very nutritious, plus it sits a bit heavy on the stomach.  But it was in part gold the reason Cortés showed up in the 1500’s and was introduced to chocolate and maize:  silver showed up on the radar of the Spanish court soon thereafter, and then the ravaging of South America began as well.

Chocolate is one of many foods that we Native American people have developed over the past 10,000 years or so, and which now constitute three-fifths of all crops in cultivation across the globe.  If you sit down to a conventional Thanksgiving dinner, you know what I mean:  Potatoes, corn or cornbread stuffing, cranberries, turkey, pumpkin pie, beans.  Yup that’s all Indigenous – these form part of our collective Native intangible assets, our cultural and intellectual histories.

Until “1492, Europeans had never tasted avocados, beans (lima, kidney, pea, shell, string and others), cacao (for chocolate), cassava, chicle (for chewing gum), chilies, corn, hickory nuts, jicama, maple syrup, manioc, papayas, peanuts, pecans, peppers, persimmons, pineapples, potatoes, pumpkins, squashes, sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes, tapioca, tomatoes or vanilla. Nor had they worn clothes woven from long-fiber cotton. In all, Native Americans have contributed more than 300 food crops to the world.

“Native Americans in the central Mexican state of Puebla began collecting and domesticating wild plants about 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. By about 6,000 to 7,000 years ago about 10 percent of their food came from cultivated products; by about 5,400 years ago the amount ratcheted up to some 30 percent. Archaeological evidence indicates that by 5000 B.C., Native Americans began farming using indigenous agricultural practices as well as those learned from Mexican and Central American cultures.”  This is a pretty decent summary of the history and impact of Native foods on modern and post-modern human history.  http://www.allbusiness.com/agriculture-forestry-fishing-hunting/331083-1.html

Wikipedia has a more comprehensive examination of Native foods; and an excellent reference book I recommend is “Chilies to Chocolate:  Food the Americas Gave the World”, edited by Nelson Foster & Linda S. Cordell, University of Arizona Press, 1992.  Since that book appeared, another important book has since come to print, although its focus is not specifically on food.

“1491:  New Revelations of the Americas Before Columus” by Charles C. Mann, confirms all of this and additionally presents important new evidence of previously unknown agricultural practice in ancient South America.  “Having secured their food supply, Mesoamerican societies turned to intellectual pursuits.  In a millennium or less, a comparatively short time, they invented their own writing, astonomy, and mathermatics, including the zero.” — from “1491” (c) 2005 Knopt Press. – please see chapter 6 in Section II.

So back to Chocolate.  You want to show some love to your loved-one for Saint Valentine’s Day, and of course chocolate is the one of the holy trinity of Valentine’s Day traditions.  Chocolate, flowers and Valentine’s day cards.  It’s a little more elaborate than A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness,” (Omar Khayyam -1048-1131- a Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer).  I don’t know, this could be a serious toss-up, depending on the wine and the Thou (wink).  Valentine was a Christian martyr and I’m still not completely clear on how Roman religious persecution and violence eventually got conflated with Cupid (who is a primordial god, son of Venus and Mercury- who knew?).

If you crave even more obscure origins of Valentine, go all the way back to Lupercalia, a fertility festival in the pre-Roman world:  “ Lupercalia was a very ancient, possibly pre-Roman pastoral festival, observed on February 15 to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Lupercalia subsumed Februa, a possibly earlier-origin spring cleansing ritual held on the same date, which gives the month of February its name.”  God I love Wikipedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupercalia

So, eat some Godiva chocolates (you know, the lady who rides around naked on a horse), make a batch of fudge, paint your lover’s body with a little melted ganache- and connect the dots between ancient pre-America and ancient pre-Europe.   And thank whichever gods are responsible for giving chocolate to the whole world.

(image courtesy of http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://webhost.bridgew.edu/phayesboh/Clipart/aztec2.gif&imgrefurl=http://webhost.bridgew.edu/phayesboh/&usg=__24rybt6BnKgdQsxLCZ9EY3PXsq0=&h=420&w=419&sz=102&hl=en&start=18&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=wlq8U2gQCEwfVM:&tbnh=125&tbnw=125&prev=/images%3Fq%3Daztec%2Bclipart%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DX%26um%3D1)

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It’s summer, and with the approach of Green Corn festivals throughout Native America from the Eastern Seaboard and Maritimes-, to the South-west, where the Hopi people have already danced-in the first of the summer’s corn harvest (it’s a beautiful ceremony of three-days, and they make a delicious and parchment-thin corn-bread, rolled up in scrolls).  In the Southeast (Mississippian people), where the Choctaw tribe maintained beautiful family gardens side by side, in such breadth, that when the Spanish arrived in those tribal domains some 400 years ago, the beautifully kept gardens extended in every direction, as far as the eye could see.  These were brilliant people, with a tight relationship to Mother Earth.  Now Natives everywhere are striving to revitalize and promote those sophisticated expressions of sustainable human culture and permaculture.  There are exciting projects in Indigenous garden systems being re-born in the desertic southwest, by Tohono O’odam people and their neighbors to the north, all the way up to the Hopis and Paiutes, not too far from the borders of the Great Basin.

One of the first foods Europeans encountered is known to this day as Succotash, although, like it’s metaphorical European cousin, Goulash- most people have no idea what real succotash or real goulash really is.  The word is common to Haudenosaunee (pronounced Haw-den-o-shawnee, better known as Iroquois, or The Confederacy of Six Nations) – and Algonquin based languages as well.  Now we’re going to go from the Five Berry Sisters in the previous blog post about granola…to The Three Sisters.  All these dynasties of great Indigenous vegetable or fruit crops seem to be matrilineal, or is that sororal?

The story of The Three Sisters is most often identified with the 6 Nations people, who have always grown Corn, Beans, and Squash together, in what is also known in western horticultural circles as Companion Planting.  It just means that two (or more) types of plants grow better together when they are planted together intentionally, because they provide symbiotic advantages to each other.  Ok that’s redundant.  They’re symbiotic.

The corn stalks provide a natural pole for bean vines to climb (and that prevents them from sprawling all over the soil, where they can get plant rust- or must-, which can ruin a crop, or make them less productive or less beautiful.  The squash vines on the other hand grow close to the ground and have fine large leaves that shade the soil, and conserve moisture and discourage competing weeds.  The maturing squash fruits also get a good balance of sun and shade beneath the corn (generally planted with 2-4 corn seeds in a mound); and finally the beans help fix nitrogen in the soil through their root systems, which is a primary nutrient for the growing corn, which demands a lot of nitrogen from the earth.  It’s an ingenious system, and it’s been used by the advanced agricultural cultures that helped build many of the Native populations across North America during the past few millennia.

Some of the cultures have always been built on primary foodstuffs such as Sunflower, or Wild Rice, or Maize, or Quinoa (referred to as the Mother Grain by the Inca), or Goosefoot Grass seed, or Acorn, or Pinenut.  The ancient history of traditional food systems in this continent is amazing.  Stunning, actually.  But when you step back and see the impact of Indigenous foods of this hemisphere on the rest of the world during the past few hundred years, it becomes instantly recognizable that these food systems were remarkable and very intelligently designed and managed resources.  Native American foods now make up 60% of the world’s food production and trade. These are the people who gave us corn from teosinte, and tomatoes, chilis, and several hundred varieties of pappas (potatoes).  This is where the careful setting of seasonal grass fires increased the fertility of the soil, encouraged growth of desired crops, and made the process of subsistence-gathering more accessible and productive.

The three sisters first arrive at our cooking pot around mid-summer.  The recipe I make is one variation of many approaches that are somewhat different from each other, but they are all very good too.  This uses a summer squash, but as Autumn gets closer, the winter squash will also begin to appear.   You can use green corn (most people now use sweet corn), although you could also use hominy in some form, and you wouldn’t stray very far from the basic preparation.  Not only are these plants agriculturally harmonious, they are nutritionally complementary.

If I remember my math correctly, of the 8 essential amino acids that make a complete protein, Corn is deficient in lysine, but rich in tryptophan (like turkey, you know?); and beans are particularly rich in lysine, but not so much with tryptophan.  (And the beans are are legumes, not beans as in haricot vert, or string beans, green beans or whatever  you want to call them.)  So you always put the two foods together and they make a whole protein that keeps you healthy and well nourished.  The squash makes it succulent, whether it’s zucchini (summer) or pumpkin (winter).  The Maya and Aztec solved the problem of access to some of the locked-up nutrients of the corn by cooking it with lime (not the citrus fruit, the mineral)- and that releases the vitamin B necessary to prevent pelegra.

Enough with the food history – let me know if you like succotash, make succotash, have a different recipe, have an authentic preparation, etc.  When I write about food- even if this is an informal food blog- I sometimes forget to stop writing when I get on a roll…but you already figured that one out.

For this recipe, I found a can of Pigeon Peas (processed in Puerto Rico), and Patty Pan squash.

in a big skillet

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp bacon fat

Yes, use all that fat in whatever combination you like.  If you’re kosher or halal the bacon fat can be omitted, or you could use a little hickory salt or a smoked paprika, or something like that.  I like a little smokey flavor.  This would have always been prepared over a cooking fire, for thousands of years.  Just use about 1/4 to 1/3 cup fat.  And it’s not true what they were saying for a while about lard or bacon fat- it’s actually much better for you than hydrogenated margarine or shortening ever was (although find the hormone free pork product if you can).

Into the fat, put a small sliced onion, sliced almost any way you like;

smash a clove of garlic & add that after a while, along with

-generous 1/2 tsp cracked black pepper

-1/2 tsp salt (I have never in my life used quantities of  salt in my cooking, most people use more than this)

-a pinch of nutmeg

-a spoonful of dried shrimp powder

-a ground up dried red pepper (such as a cayenne), depending on if you want this to be spicy warm or not

-some fresh herbs if you have them, thyme, sage, parsely, basil, wild garlic grass- you could even use some mint or coltsfoot (that would be a very traditional seasoning, although you have to dry the coltsfoot and burn it to an ash, to use it)

After everything has sweated together  at medium heat for a while, add a can of legume beans (roughly a pint, if you cook your own from scratch, and it’s worth the time and effort); and maybe 2 cups of roughly sliced up summer or winter squash.  Now add about 3 cups of corn kernels- freshly shelled is best.  Just strip it off the cob with a knife or corn sheller, and be sure to squeeze out the milk and all the of corn by milking the empty cob with the flat of your knife.  Today, I also took a big handful of dried wild mushrooms and soaked them in very hot water for 10 minutes, and chopped them roughly and added them to the mix.  Be sure to add the soaking water from the mushrooms, but don’t let any of sand or grit at the bottom of the soaking water get into your recipe.   I just let everything cook together for another 10-15 minutes over medium heat.

The mushrooms I used have morels, which are regarded as very dilectible  by anyone who either grew up with them wild, or anyone who is a food snob.  They are very good when you pick them in the woods, and they grow near rotten oak tree stumps/logs for some reason.  Morel mushrooms are so good I want to marry them.  They are one of the foods with the 6th quality of Umami (the other five are: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and hot)- Umami is the fun one.  It’s the mind-filling and taste-bud satisfying quality that you find in oysters, lobsters, truffles, mushrooms, fois gras, soft-rinded cheeses, and other foods that are <Surprise!> also associated with aphrodisiacs.  You don’t hear that on the Food Network just every day.

For the beans, you could use pintos, red beans, cranberry beans, black beans, kidney beans- they are the amino acid and carbohydrate powerhouses.  Altogether, this is a wonder-food, and it tastes good too.  The recipe I describe on this blog does use a lot of adapted and introduced ingredients, but the authentic preparation I can just imagine made a hundred generations of Native people everywhere very happy, healthy and strong for many many centuries.

There are about 100 people a week reading this blog now (I hope you like it!)- and if I make a mistake about my amino acids, or make some kind of wildly misplaced or mistaken statement about the Tibetan Goji Berry Harvest, you’ll let me know, right?  lol