Corn: In Oak Park and Ancient America

At Farmers' Market, corn stand usually busiest

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By David Hammond

We in the Midwest may sometimes think we invented corn, there's so much of it around here come July and August. At the Oak Park Farmers' Market, the corn stand at the northwest corner of the center aisle is usually the busiest place in the Pilgrim Church parking lot.

Corn is one of the main reasons that indigenous civilizations in ancient America were able to settle down and build the magnificent cities that still exist today, most in ruins but still recognizable as cities. The most well-known urban center in this part of North America is probably Mesa Verde, outside Cortez, Colorado; it is indeed an awe-inspiring space, made possible, in large part, by corn.

Along with beans and squash, corn was one of the "three sisters" that supported life in even seemingly inhospitable climates. Together, the three sisters support one another: beans grow up the corn stalks, squash plants crowd out weeds around corn stalks, and beans fix nitrogen that can be used by corn in the following season. When eaten together, these three provide complementary proteins that reinforce the amino acid quotient of each. As if to alert humans of their mutually beneficial qualities, they taste very good when eaten together.

The people who lived at Mesa Verde ate a lot of corn, which provided much caloric energy per acre. This corn was usually ground on metates, stone grinding plates. The kernels were crushed, stone on stone, which inevitably lead to small pieces of rock and other debris being included in the food. This is why the skeletons of these ancient Mesa Verdeans give evidence that by their thirties or so, they frequently had ruined teeth, the enamel ground off by tiny rocks in the corn…and they ate a lot of corn.

Just about all pre-Columbian agricultural communities in North America were built on the strength of the three sisters. I was surprised that such abundance was possible in what seemed a largely desert environment around the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Jim Colleran, an archaeologist who showed us around ancient Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Colorado and Utah, told us that it wasn't always so. The grounds that now seem almost-deserts were once fertile lands. They were over-planted and deforested by the people who lived in Mesa Verde and elsewhere, and they were subsequently over-grazed by Navajo and European settlers in the region.

"One of the things that I find most distressing is that when people look at the sites," says Colleran, "Mesa Verde or Chaco, they don't look at it for what it says about the culture. People think the Anasazi were very environmentally aware, but it was probably the damage to the environment that they did in the last 50 years of the 1200s that helped contribute to their demise. We should be looking at that, and what you'd be looking at during that time is a denuded countryside. We're doing the same. We're not learning that lesson."

One of the things I found most interesting about Colleran's comments is that they suggest that Native Americans were maybe not as in tune with the environment as we might think. Surely, they felt a deeper connection to the earth than do we who live on concrete and under electric lights, but they still felt the earth was there to be exploited without much heed for consequences.

But everyone is getting more serious about stewardship of the land, including newcomers like we Europeans as well as those who lived here before us.

I brought back some Bow & Arrow corn meal from the Ute Tribe. On the label of the corn it explains that the Utes use "sustainable farming practices implemented through the use of state-of-the-art technology." So that's progress…and this corn meal made by far the finest corn bread in memory. It was predictably excellent with Anasazi beans. We would have liked some squash with that, too, but it's still a little early in the season.

Though it's tough to say that corn is still the cornerstone of civilization – as we have so many nutritional options now – it's still a big part of summer in Oak Park, and it's probably the food we look forward to most when the weather gets warmer. Corn can be shipped in any time of year, but having it fresh off a just-picked ear, well, there's nothing that compares. I go to the Farmers' Market every weekend, waiting for it.

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