Friday, June 6, 2008

The history of nations written in agriculture

Agriculture is such an important part of any culture that ancient cultures built up deities to bless their crops. The Greeks had their goddess Ceres, goddess of grains, and the origin of our word cereal. They also worshiped a lesser-known god named Robigus who protected their crops from devastating diseases, including the prevalent wheat rust.

So many nations and cultures have risen, fallen, and been irrevocably altered by the plants they rely on for survival. With the stratification of our society and the removal of the people from the land, I think that most Americans take that for granted any more. They forget about things like the Irish potato famine, caused by the late blight phytopthora, which destroyed millions of tons of potatoes, eliminating the food supply for millions of people and leading millions to starve to death and millions more to immigrate to America. All because those millions of people lived off of essentially one food- the potato. People also forget, if they ever knew, that the potato is in fact indigenous to South America, and before the Renaissance explorers made their way to the New World, none of the Irish poor had ever seen a potato, much less eaten one. I wonder what they lived off of then?

The potato is not the only plant discovered in the New World that changed the lives of countless people. Tomatoes are also New World natives, along with cocoa beans, squashes and gourds including cucumbers, zucchini, and pumpkins, maize, tobacco, and rubber trees. The conquistadors, being closely connected to the land, saw the value in these new plants and sent them back to their homes where they quickly became ingrained in European life.

However, one plant that played a major role in the lives of the Incas did not get sent to Europe. This was a tall, thin plant with small seeds used like a grain, and it was called quinoa.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, quinoa played a central role in the lives of the people who lived in and around the Andes. It was one of their top staples, along with potatoes, maize, and phaseolus beans. The people boiled it and ate it for breakfast and ground it up and cooked with its flour. They, like the Greeks and Romans, had their own set of deity responsible for keeping their crops alive, and every spring, the Incan Emperor would plant a quinoa seed with a golden spade as an offering to the sun god. Quinoa sacrifices were part of the religion.

The conquistadors, professing God, Gold, and Glory, would have none of that. Quinoa was relegated to the hinterlands where the Conquistadors had no desire to settle. Any attempts they made to take quinoa seed home with them were probably thwarted by the plant's high susceptibility to mildew; if quinoa seeds were placed in the hold of a damp ship, there would be nothing viable left after several weeks on the ocean.

Because of this turn on events, the story of quinoa has been very different from the story of potatoes or tobacco or corn, all the plants that it grew up with. Only recently was quinoa "rediscovered," thriving as the staple crop for the indigenous people of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, high in the Alteplano of the Andes. And it's making a comeback. Because what the Conquistadors didn't know is that quinoa is an amazingly nutritious food. It contains every essential amino acid. It tastes good (if the bitter saponin coating is removed) and is gluten-free. It's every health nut's dream come true, packaged in an attractive, colorful seedhead.

It's also every subsistence farmer's dream come true. For those people who are still connected to the land, who are tied to it and must grow almost all the food their families eat, who can usually only afford to plant a single crop, quinoa is almost too good to be true. And that's why the story of quinoa is the one that's drawn me in- at least for now.

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