Maple Keeps Good Company

November 18, 2020

Time to give thanks! None of us can imagine life without crops first cultivated by America’s first inhabitants.

New England at Thanksgiving

Sugar country, under snow, getting ready to give thanks for the abundance of food first developed in the Americas.

We didn’t realize until a few years ago that November was National Native American Heritage Month. Now that we know, we feel inspired to give annual thanks for how open-air sugar making got its start many hundreds (thousands!) of years ago here among the native peoples of North America.

What we also didn’t know until a few years ago was that the native peoples of the Americas first developed a number of other crops; foods that are so important that there’s not a corner of the globe where people could imagine life without them!

We’re talking basics, here, people! Among them are the potato, many varieties of beans, all the squashes of the world, the tomato, peppers, and, of course, maize.

To be sure, maize, the gastronomic contribution we typically learn about in grade school, deserves extra-special mention. The reasons are at least twofold. First, in terms of its harvest weight, corn has been the world’s most essential crop since its inception. And second, unlike the world’s other cereals, it has no wild antecedent. Maize was created by Native Americans through a process of hybridization unnecessary to the development of grains, like wheat and barley, that were first harvested wild on other continents. Unlike their peers elsewhere, therefore, Native Americans engineered maize.

An incredible feat, yes. But not as unbelievable as imagining Italian food without the tomato, Thai and Indian food without the pepper, or Ireland without that miracle for small farms and cool climates: the potato. Nevertheless, before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, these crops, and many more, only existed in North and South America. For this brilliance, this ingenuity, the world is thankful, in some places, at every single meal!

These revelations cover only the highest peak of this particularly big (and interesting!) iceberg. In fact, new scholarship suggests that, prior to European contact, the continents of North and South America were not made up of the “unspoilt wilderness” that have populated the fantasies of Europeans, and then European Americans, for centuries. Rather, if contemporary historians are correct, the entire Western Hemisphere, far from being a “New World,” was a vast, engineered, managed, edible landscape tens-of-thousands of years in the making. Current thinking is that, almost without exception, the hemisphere was a patchwork of small and large farms and orchards, massive game reserves and forests managed for food (a practice called “agroforestry”). So much of the world’s culinary variety began here!

So the next time you sit down for a meal, even if it’s not Thanksgiving, take a moment to wonder and give thanks to the world’s most accomplished master gardeners, the native peoples of this place we call home.

If we’ve piqued your interest, you can pick up this book as a first step toward learning even more. And if we’ve touched your hearts, know that 5% of all purchases made in the month of November will go to the Native American Community Response Fund to help native communities, who have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, weather this storm.

Stay safe and healthy and we will see you on that other side. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!