Sunday, November 30, 2008

Corn Harvest

What’s blooming: Nothing; dead grasses and Russian thistles turning black.

What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, Saint John’s wort, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, June and other grasses; iris, catmint, fern-leaf yarrow and tansy still have some leaves.

What’s gray or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.

What’s red: Raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose; Japanese barberry still has some leaves

What’s turning yellow: Apache plume, golden spur columbine.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea, rochea.

Animal sightings: Large bird, maybe a duck or grey goose, in hay field in front of the house where chickens had been let loose earlier this year.

Weather: Why does it always rain, snow or sleet on Thanksgiving, as it did this week, when the holiday isn’t tied to any particular lunar or solar event? Congress made it the fourth Thursday of the month in 1941. Now ice forms on the windshield after dawn instead of the dry frost flakes earlier in the week. 8:41 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The problem with growing vegetables is sometimes you succeed. If there’s more than you can eat off the vine, then you must either can, freeze, dry or hope for lots of friends. My bucolic idyl of leaving the surplus for the birds was shattered when hornets arrived to harvest the peaches. Nothing is more unpleasant than removing rotten tomatoes in the spring. If you flirt with farm life, you have to learn it all.

Dehydration was the only preservation method used in this area. Squashes and meat were cut and hung, chiles were strung into ristras, fruits were sliced and laid flat. Corn will cure on the stalk, but was husked, then left to continue drying. The Santa Clara tossed cobs onto their flat roofs or platforms built from cottonwood poles, then stacked them in a storeroom.

Any child knows how to eat dried fruit or jerky. Cooking pinto beans simply takes time. Maíz is another matter, because it’s hard as unpopped corn and takes days to soften in water, or must be ground. Raw corn’s proteins are difficult for humans to digest and lack both niacin and the amino acid tryptophan which the body can use to create the B vitamin. When Zea mays was exported to northern Italy and Africa, pellagra followed; the vitamin deficiency spread in the American south in the early twentieth century when food processing methods changed.

Long before Cortes arrived, the Maya learned the secret of soaking dried kernels in an alkaline hydroxide solution that loosens the outer skin and removes the germ, at the same time it liberates the niacin. They grew it with beans that not only provided ixim’s deep roots with nitrogen but contained the missing amino acids that can combine with those of corn in the body to produce complete proteins. They probably also absorbed calcium that had soaked into rehydrated kernels.

The lowland Maya apparently burned the shell remains of pachychilus snails and used the calcium carbonate ashes in their soaking solutions. The ashes reacted with water to produce the calcium hydroxide that, in turn, interacted with the starches. As cintli moved inland, burned limestone was used instead. A generation after Cortes, the Aztec told Bernardino de Sahagún nextli meant ashes and was combined with water in nexatl. Today, treating corn with wet lime is still called nixtamalization.

The use of ashes followed maize into the eastern woodlands of this country where the potassium hydroxide from wood ashes was substituted. Neighboring English-speaking settlers used their byproduct from manufacturing lye soap with animal fat, hardwood ashes, and boiling water. By the time the USDA was telling women how to can hominy in 1912, Katherine Ola Powell assumed they were using household lye, salty sodium hydroxide, and telling them to leave the flat sweet corn in running water for three or four hours to remove the poison. Later, the University of Georgia extension office suggested baking soda instead, a sodium bicarbonate derivative of lye.

When corn moved into the southwest, early pueblo women ground the dried kernels on portable basalt slabs with carved out depressions. One of the men following Coronado when he visited the seven Zuñi cities of Cibola in 1540 saw mealing troughs made from sandstone slabs divided into three sections. In the first, corn was crushed on a lava or basalt stone into tchu-tsi-kwah-na-we. Next it was ground into sa-k’o-we, a coarse meal then was reground on a sandstone slab for o-lu-tsi-na. By the end of the nineteenth century, Martha Stevenson found two grinding mills, and sometimes a sieve, had replaced the second and third metates.

Frank Cushing saw Zuñi women in the early 1880's chew some of the coarse meal and mix it with the finer flour and water, then leave it to ferment, thereby increasing the niacin and protein content. At that point, they added ground lime and salt to the yeast which then was added to many of their corn dishes. Among the Tewa-speaking Hano of eastern Arizona, Barbara Friere-Marreco saw them add ashes from burned sagebrush. The alkalines not only change the color and taste of tortillas but make the dough more pliable.

Traditional Mexican methods co-existed with ground corn in a variety of foodways that converted what was essentially grass into something palatable and nutritious.. Cushing saw Zuñi women boil dried kernels with ashes for dough or grinding. Friere-Marreco found posole being made by soaking cobs, but the Santa Clara were using lime instead of ashes. She also saw no metates in the newer homes; women used coffee grinders to make the fine flour they mixed with water for atole.

In the same years in Chimayó, maíz was taken to small water-powered mills with horizontal grindstones that also handled wheat and chili, flavoring them all. Posole was made with lime, but all people remember now is that certain women with wood burning stoves made the most wonderful tortillas, "tan sabrosas."

Today, if you go into our local groceries, you can find frozen posole made from corn, water and lime or fécula de maíz made from corn starch ready for atole. You can also find frozen and dried maso for tortillas made from corn treated with lime. Peter Casados sells dried posole, chicos, harina for atole and roasted white corn meal for chaquegüe grown at El Guique, just beyond San Juan. Or, for flaky cornbread, you can buy degerminated American meal that’s been enriched with niacin and other nutrients.

Whenever you hear that simple tale of the feast shared by pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plimoth plantation in 1621 to celebrate the first harvest of wheat and corn, remember Edward Winslow was the one reporting they ate migrating birds and deer. The four women who survived the first year would have known the methods for handling that bounty were a cultural gift more precious than the seed itself.

Notes: Atole is a beverage; posole is similar to hominy; chicos are dried kernels cooked with beans; chaquegüe is a gruel or mush; maso and harina are flours.
Casados, Peter. PO Box 852, San Juan Pueblo, NM 87566.

Castañeda, Pedro de. Relaccion de la Jornada Cibola,1596, translated and reprinted many times.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. Zuni Breadstuff, 1920.

Nations James D. The Maya Tropical Forest, 2006.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España, c.1577, translated as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI - Earthly Things by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, 1963.

Stevenson, Martha Coxe. The Zuni Indians, 1904, reprinted by The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1985.

Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995.

United States Department of Agriculture, Home Extension Service. Katherine Ola Powell, Successful Canning and Preserving, 1917.

____, University of Georgia. Elizabeth L. Andress, "Hominy without Lye," 2005.

Winslow, Edward. Letter dated 11 December 1621, originally published in A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622; reprinted many times since and available on-line.

Photograph: Chiles abandoned to the elements, 28 November 2008.

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