Celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day: The Mayan Milpa

Learn more about the milpa at Chicago Gourmet

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By David Hammond

In Oak Park, the second Monday in October, once Columbus Day, is now Indigenous Peoples Day.

As an Italian-American, I'm a little sorry to see Oak Park remove a day of recognition for an Italian explorer who changed the world but who, alas, is also difficult to defend, either for his own actions or the actions of those who came after him (looking at you, Cortez). Still, I'm glad to see the Village recognize the place of indigenous people in the history of our continent and the world.

Next weekend, September 22-24, the tenth annual Chicago Gourmet will be held in Millennium Park.  This eating extravaganza is all about excellent food prepared by premier Chicago chefs, and many of these chefs will also be doing demos. At one of the demos, I'll be emceeing a joint presentation by two Mexican-Americans chefs, Dudley Nieto of Rojo Gusano and Diana Davila of Mi Tocoya Antojeria, who will be preparing foods from the milpa. The milpa was developed by ancient Mayan in places like the Yucatan Peninsula, and it's an agricultural technique still in use today.

Here's how the milpa works: crops – usually including corn, beans and squash – are planted in a field, sometimes randomly scattered, sometimes in neater rows.  The corn stalks become poles for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, which is required by the corn, and the squash grow on the ground and their big leaves hold in moisture for both corn and beans.  It's a beautiful little ecosystem.

Nutritionally, corn and beans are the source of complementary amino acids: corn provides cysteine and methionine, which beans lack, and beans provide lysine and tryptophan, which corn lacks. Eaten together, corn and beans help the body make complete proteins.

Maize researcher H. Garrison Wilkes at the University of Massachusetts has been quoted in Charles C. Mann's 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, that "The milpa is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.'"

Corn and beans, of course, are two fundamental components of Mexican food; all over Mexico, corn is used to make tortillas filled with beans, and such simple foods have sustained indigenous populations for millennia. The milpa system itself has been used in the same areas of Mexico for more than 4,000 years; it uses no chemical fertilizers and is a model of sustainable agriculture.

The milpa system of agriculture is still in use by the people of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It's not particularly well-suited to large corporate agricultural operations, but for smaller traditional communities, it continues to do very well. The milpa is an enduring contribution of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

If you'd like to see what kind of delicious foods can be created from the milpa, consider attending the Nieto-Davila demonstration at Chicago Gourmet; while there, eat some of the most delicious festival food ever. Tickets can be purchased here: http://www.chicagogourmet.org/?page=TicketSales

Incidentally, Nieto is the man behind Oak Park's original Rebozo restaurant on Madison Street; for years now, and under new management, it was appropriately renamed New Rebozo. Having dinner at New Rebozo, you can count on having corn and beans, two traditional foods of the milpa. And you can thank the indigenous people of the Americas for that.


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