Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Three Sisters.

Since Thanksgiving is tomorrow (here), and I've got native Americans and food on the brain...

The Three Sisters is a traditional name for a companion-planting method used by native Americans in central and north America. They would plant corn, beans, and squash (sometimes pumpkins, not always) in the same fields, and the yield from all three together would be a great deal more than any single plant grown in the western (monocrop) method. The Iroquois League and a lot of other tribes in this region were running on the Three Sisters when the white man got here around 1600AD.

No one's sure of just where the idea of the Three Sisters originated (though companion planting was/is extremely common in areas with non-industrialized farming). It is known that corn, squash and beans are all native to central America, not north, so that widens the field in terms of where the idea occurred. It's even possible that it was invented more than once - southwestern tribes would add a fourth plant, "bee plant", that drew pollinators to the fields. It's also possible that the concept of planting all three together was so darn obvious to the native peoples that it wasn't really invented at all; that's just how they did it.

Here's how it works: Corn is planted in hills (usually with some rotten fish or crustaceans in the hill), allowing for good drainage and making harvest easier. Once the corn is established, beans and squash are planted into the sides of the hills. (Exact planting dates vary widely, due to small differences in soil and climate.) The beans use the corn stalks to climb, and fix nitrogen into the soil - the very same nitrogen that corn sucks out. The squash vines grow out in all directions, providing a 'cover crop' which chokes out weeds and small animals. Once everything is harvested, it's plowed right back into the soil and left to rot over the winter, and everything starts again in the spring. (In the southwest, I bet they could get two growing seasons per year, in some areas.)

Not only do you get sustainable agriculture out of this - there's enough fertilizing and nitrogen-fixing going on to support all the corn grown - but the harvest is then nutritionally sound for the people eating it. Corn and beans provide that 'whole protein' that we've discussed before. Squash provides excess beta-carotene, which is one of the more difficult nutrients to obtain in ancient/traditional diets.

The usual method for modern science to gauge how efficient a farming system is, the unit of measurement so to speak, is 'calories per acre'. Which makes sense, because it's a very obvious indicator of how useful the land is to us. How much food can we get from it? Unfortunately, my text-books are in storage so I do not have concrete numbers, but I've done research on this before and the Three Sisters yield more calories per acre than any other temperate-zone crop, before the advent of modern agriculture. (Tropical crops are something else again. There is raging debate over whether sugar cane or breadfruit win the highest-yield-of-all-time contest.) And remember, the Three Sisters were far more sustainable than the monocropping going on in the Old World. While the Middle East's topsoil was filling in the Persian Gulf, while China's farmland was blowing away, while Europeans were starving from bad crop yields, the native north Americans were simply leaving their field fallow every couple years and going right back to farming it, because the Three Sisters don't deplete the soil.

I'll leave you with my personal recipe for Succotash, a traditional all-in-one meal of the northeast Amerinds. I developed this myself, for a research project, using foods that are native and would have (conceivably) been available. There are some extras thrown in that aren't traditional, for taste, but I'll point those out.

Don't let the simplicity of this fool you; I have people rave over how great this is, and ask for the recipe.


-1 jalapeno pepper, all seeds and white parts removed, diced fine
-4 cups (ish) sweet corn, removed from ear
-4 cups (ish) baby lima beans, shelled
-salt to taste
-pepper (this is not native, but tastes good)
-some kind of fat (bear grease was traditionally used; sunflower oil would work and would have been native to the area and available; usually I use olive oil which isn't remotely native, but good and easily available)
-onion is not native, but a little bit tastes good, up to you

In a cast-iron skillet: coat bottom of skillet with oil, then add jalapeno, salt and onion if you're using it. Allow this to 'sweat' a bit - low heat to draw out the flavors and infuse the oil with flavor. Pour in corn and beans, raise heat very slightly. Stir this around until the corn and beans are warmed through but not cooked to death. Add pepper to taste. Serve. A dollop of butter on the top is very pleasing to Europeanized taste buds.

Other than the lack of bear grease and the addition of the pepper, this is something that could have been eaten in north America a thousand years ago. (Though of course they would have cooked it on a large, flat rock near a fire.) Enjoy.


amy said...

I think there are stories to go with the Three Sisters too... would your succotash be good with regular (not jalapeno) peppers? I have wuss taste buds.

Julie said...

By removing all the white parts and seeds from the jalapeno, you remove 99.9% of the heat, and instead have a pleasant, fruity green flavor. Honest. When people ask what makes it taste good, I give the ingredients and people go "THERE'S A JALAPENO IN THERE??!!??" it's really mild. Honest. I swear.

Barbara said...

Oh, I love succotash! My grandma grew the best butter (lima) beans in southern Indiana, or at least I thought so when I was growing up. Thanks for the reminder.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Emily said...

I'm saving this to

Alwen said...

Okay, you are probably the only other person in the world that I know who would be interested in this:

Another thing corn does is that it funnels water to its own roots. If you are watering corn plants one at a time, the best way to water it is pour the water right on the stem of the plant. It will run along the stalk right down to the roots.

Other plants do this, too - maple leaves stop so much of the rain that they'll be dry underneath in a light rain, except where the leaves runnel it down the trunk.

As far as I know, no one has ever studied this plant behavior/trait, or whatever you call it.

ellen in indy said...

happy thanksgiving in pigsbird! are you having pig or bird?

the succotash sounds yum. have you made it with MORE jalapeƱo flavor? that also would appeal to my tastebuds.

Donna Lee said...

I'd be nervous about using the jalapeno,too , but I trust you. I don't like food that bites.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and the Husbeast and the Goober and Sekhmet!

Amy Lane said...

OKay-- very cool. I had not known about Three Sister's planting... but there is a story in there somewhere!