At first glance, a cuisine centered on corn, beans and squash may not seem all that interesting, impressive or chic, but it goes deeper than you might expect. These are no ordinary ingredients. They are the foundation of a civilization…and a very interesting story of three fascinating sisters.
Many a Native American legend has been woven around the “Three Sisters,’ sibling goddesses who could never bear to be separated. Each sister symbolized and protected one of the three sacred crops essential to the survival of early Native American societies: corn, beans and squash. To honor them and ensure that their spirits remain inseparable, these crops were planted together, eaten together and celebrated together.
Tribes’ very survival depended on a reliable food supply, which is why they developed a method known as ‘companion planting.’ The highest yield of beans came when they had tall poles to climb, so they were planted next to the corn whose tall straight stalks were perfect for the climbing vines of the beans. In turn, the bacterial colonies on beans’ roots captured nitrogen from the air and enriched the soil in a way that corn needs to produce a large crop. Ah, but the third sister is what makes this system pure genius.
The squash sends out long, winding vines, but likes to stay close to the ground. The plants have large leaves. So by planting squash in between rows of corn, they provided shade for the very shallow roots of the corn plants. They also kept the ground moist, which helped the beans grow, which helped the corn grow…and on and on.
It was…and is…brilliant and also the reason that these humble plants play such a large role in Native American culture. They sustained the culture on many levels. But what has it to do with us in our modern, overly-connected, high-wire acts we call life?
The combination of the nutrients in these three plants makes for about as perfect a diet as any culture has known. Called ‘triad cookery’ combining these three ingredients are not only delicious, but makes for amazingly healthy nutrition. The simple brilliance of this could save our culture from eating itself into obesity…in a simple, yummy and natural way.
Corn is more than just the backyard picnic treat that you slather with butter. Even with upstarts like the new ‘super foods’ that are stealing the show these days, this ancient grain was good enough for the Mayans and good enough to sustain modern life. A rich source of fiber, vitamin C, thiamin (benefits memory), pantothenic acid (supports adrenal function under stress)), phosphorus, folate and complex carbohydrates, the bran in corn has been shown to be one of the greatest protectors of heart health. The soluble fiber in binds with cholesterol in bile from the liver and then passes from the body taking the cholesterol with it. (Of course all these benefits are negated if your corn is dripping in butter…but that’s another blog)
Choose organic corn as much as possible so you can avoid the environment-damaging genetically engineered, Frankenstein corn being shoved down our throats by the evildoers at Monsanto. Interesting that they went after corn, one of our most ancient and sound sources of nutrients. They are such rats, ya’ know?
Called nature’s perfect food, beans are without nutritional peer. While key nutrients vary bean to bean, the truth is simple. Hands down, beans have the highest antioxidant content…period. Oh…and they’re delicious, low in calories and fat and they fill you up…fast!
Check this out. Black beans contain anthocynanins, the same heart disease and cancer fighting antioxidants in cranberries and grapes. Chickpeas, lentils and cannellini beans have recently been shown to slash ‘bad’ LDL levels by 5%. Kidney beans, rich in thiamin, protect our memory and brain function. And pinto beans can help stabilize blood sugar, reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
And cup for cup, beans provide about twice the fiber as most other veggies and you can count on them for protein in a healthy diet. From sauté dishes to soups and casseroles, beans can be the center for most meals and keep that feast’s calorie counts under 500 calories…and yummy? Just try them. Oh and forget that silly little ditty…except for the part about being good for your heart.
And then there’s squash. Winter squash, including pumpkin, butternut, buttercup, acorn, kabocha and delicata, like other richly-colored vegetables are excellent sources of carotenes. They are also great sources of vitamins B1, B6 and C, folic acid, pantothenic acid, niacin, fiber and potassium. Studies have shown that diets rich in carotenes offer protection against heart disease, cancer and even Type 2 diabetes.
Summer squash is richer in moisture and less nutrient-dense than their cold weather sister, but they’re no lightweights. Low in calories, rich in vitamin C, potassium and even carotenes, they are an essential part of a healthy diet. So you get the benefits of squash year-round…winter or summer.
Put the ‘Three Sisters’ together and you have built a strong foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Let’s face it. The culinary profile of pre-colonial America would have been non-existent (as would the population…) if not for the influence of these inseparable goddesses of nutrition. This powerful trio presented a major advantage that made more advanced cuisine possible. All three ingredients could be dried and store for future use, ensuring a steady food supply not reliant on the whims of the weather. Fresh or dried, the Three Sisters had it all.
The Native American legends tell us of three sacred goddesses…sisters…destined to remain intertwined in growth, cultivation and consumption. But think of this. If these ‘sisters’ were not celebrated as one, early America could not have maintained a healthy and steady food supply and most likely would have perished from starvation.
The three sisters sustained America in a way that no other food source could. They truly form the most perfect of trinities and can sustain us to this day. Put that in your mirepoix and cook it!