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When the small band of separatists from the Church of England whom we call the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod in November 1620, they entered an abundant land. But they faced some major obstacles to enjoying the foods around them. While there was much talk in Europe at the time about the wondrous plants and animals of the New World, few Europeans could distinguish fact from fancy among claims about new discoveries. The fish and game looked similar to Old World species, but much of the plant life seemed unfamiliar. There are few places in North America where the vegetation more resembles that of the British Isles, but the Pilgrims, like many wayfarers, were more struck by differences than similarities. In their ignorance, they saw their new home as, in the words of William Bradford, "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men."
However, for the thousands of native people who called the region home, the land was most certainly not "a hideous and desolate wilderness." For these people, members of different tribes and language groups, whom Europeans soon lumped together under the generic and inaccurate term "Indian," the region provided rich hunting and fishing grounds. It was also, in its southern portions, an excellent place to grow corn, beans, pumpkins, and other squashes. And it abounded with many types of edible wild plants, berries, and nuts. As the English eventually came to see and the native peoples already knew, New England was a fruitful place.
Why Begin with Corn?
It was sadly prophetic of the relations that would eventually develop between the colonists and the Indians that the colonists' first taste of indigenous food was an illicit one. Edward Winslow and William Bradford described the incident in one of the earliest accounts of the settlement of Plymouth Colony. Shortly after the Mayflower dropped anchor off the outer end of Cape Cod, a party was sent inland to explore the area. Before long, the men came across a harvested field and an adjacent mound of sand. Buried in the sand was "a fine great new basket, full of very fair corn of this year ... some yellow, and some red, and others mixed with blue, which was a very goodly sight; the basket ... held about three or four bushels, which was as much as two of us could lift up from the ground, and was very handsomely and cunningly made." The explorers took the basket with them, and its contents were added to the available provisions aboard the ship.
This small theft (Bradford and Winslow took pains to say that the Indians from whom the corn was stolen were later compensated) began the Pilgrims' indebtedness to the native peoples. One month after finding the cache of corn, unable to travel farther south because of the approach of winter, the newcomers decided to settle across Cape Cod Bay from the place where they had first dropped anchor. The site they chose for their settlement was an abandoned Algonquian village. It had been decimated a few years earlier by an epidemic imported from Europe. The settlers considered this "a place ... fit for situation," as Bradford said, because of its nearby brooks and open fields, which had been cleared by the Algonquians for growing corn.
The Pilgrims were unfit for the life of settlers for reasons other than their unfamiliarity with American flora and fauna. Before crossing the Atlantic, they had lived for over a decade in the Dutch town of Leiden, supporting themselves as artisans and laborers. Even in England, most of them had been townspeople, although many were but a generation removed from an agricultural background. During their first winter in America, half their number died of scurvy and other diseases. They had few tools, making the work of building houses long and arduous.
Even if the Pilgrims had been better equipped, they could not have avoided the suffering and struggle that comes with adjustment to a new environment. They soon discovered that New England weather fluctuated dramatically through the year, from winters that were "sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms," to summers that could be extremely hot and humid. One problem they did not have to confront as yet was the need to clear forested land for English-style tillage and livestock pasturage. The Pilgrims established their settlement on a site that the native inhabitants of the region had cleared before an epidemic had killed most of them. But the "light, sandy, and gravelly soil" of this and other conveniently cleared spots nearby proved inhospitable to the English grains that the settlers preferred to grow. Such soil should have been "ideal for rye" at least, though not for wheat, but for some reason, as one writer would state in 1637, even "our rye likes it not." The implications of this difficulty will be explored throughout this chapter.
The most immediate obstacle, of course, was that it was winter when the Pilgrims established their settlement, making planting impossible for many months. Fortunately, the time they finally could plant, March 1621, was also the time that the straggling band of settlers made contact with the two representatives of the neighboring group of Wampanoag Indians who more than anyone else would make it possible for them to survive. One of these was the sachem Massasoit. As was noted in Mourt's Relation, Massasoit was eager to conclude a peace treaty with the newcomers, "especially because hee hath a potent Adversary the Narowhiganseis [Narragansetts], that are at warre with him, against whom hee thinks wee may be some strength to him, for our peeces [guns] are terrible unto them."
The treaty was duly concluded and was soon turned into a practical reality by the actions of the other Indian whose acquaintance the settlers made that spring-Squanto. We all know about Squanto from our elementary school lessons. He had been taken by European traders years earlier to be a slave in Spain, but he had escaped to England. In 1617 he returned to the New England coast by way of Newfoundland, after learning that an epidemic had killed most of his tribe. It was the same epidemic that had caused the abandonment of the village that subsequently became Plymouth Plantation.
After the successful termination of the treaty negotiations and Massasoit's return to his home place, "Squanto continued with them and was their interpreter and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities." The following spring, he showed them some crucial points of corn agriculture, including the use of fish as fertilizer (a technique he may actually have learned during his sojourn in England and Newfoundland): "Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both the manner how to set it, and after how to dress and tend it. Also he told them, except they got fish and set with it in these old grounds it would come to nothing."
But Corn Can't Stand Alone
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, nutrition-deficiency diseases were unheard of among the natives of the hemisphere. This fact becomes even more surprising when we consider that such diseases were common in Europe at the time. It appears that the Indians had come to understand the hazards of a diet consisting exclusively of corn. Such at least is a reasonable inference from the fact that they either supplemented corn with other foods, or cooked it in ways that released all its nutrients, or both.
These supplementary foods were most often beans or pumpkins and other squashes, but they also included fish, game, and occasionally maple syrup. As far as nutritious methods of cooking corn itself were concerned, the principal one was the addition of ash. Whether the ash was specially made from burnt hickory or roasted, crushed shells, or whether it was simply swept up from the fire, throughout the vast geographic area of corn's predominance, native peoples pinched a little of it into their corn mixtures.
We now know that these practices had a sound nutritional basis. Without supplementation or special treatment, corn provides neither niacin, a member of the vitamin B family, nor tryptophan, an amino acid from which, as Betty Fussell explains, "the human body can synthesize niacin." The primary supplement to corn was beans, which are rich in niacin and tryptophan. If the corn is not supplemented by other foods in the eating, then adding an alkali such as ash in the cooking both increases the availability of tryptophan and also assists in converting tryptophan to niacin, thereby releasing the vitamin "for the body's use."
These procedures exemplify the substantial, if intuitive, wisdom that underlay many premodern traditions. By following them, the Indians were spared the horrors of pellagra, a vitamin-deficiency disease that afflicted the peasantry of those parts of Europe that had adopted corn as a dietary staple after its introduction from the Americas in the sixteenth century.
All Indian tribes who relied on corn knew how to extract the maximum nutritional value from their most important crop. But how did corn become the quintessential Indian crop in the first place?
She Who Sustains Us
Corn is a species of grass, albeit an unusually large one. A giant, in fact. Originating in Mexico or Central America approximately 8,000 years ago, it spread throughout the hemisphere. Columbus's men found it growing in Cuba in 1492. The original English word for the grain, "maize," comes from the Tainos, the Arawak people of Cuba, the Greater Antilles, and the Bahamas, whom the Spanish expedition encountered. The Tainos called their grain "mahiz," from which were derived the Spanish "maíz" and the English "maize."
As corn was passed along from one group to another, people developed the strains that best suited their soils, climates, growing conditions, and tastes. By preserving seeds from plants of the type they wished to grow and discarding the rest, native farmers practiced sophisticated agriculture. In finding that cache of corn during their very first explorations, the Mayflower voyagers stumbled upon something that gave the lie to their idea that they had come to tame a wilderness.
They also encountered one of the plant's most useful properties. Thoroughly dried, and kept free from moisture, corn can be stored indefinitely. During a dig in Mexico, an archaeologist discovered one of the expedition's pack mules "contentedly munching on ... Aztec maize that was perhaps a thousand years old." A. Hyatt Verrill recounts the story of a farmer in Northfield, Massachusetts, in the 1930s who discovered pots filled with corn buried in his field. It had been over 150 years since Indians had lived in the area, but these earthen pots were nevertheless of Indian manufacture. To the farmer's astonishment, the eighteenth-century grain was still in perfect condition. The Indians had covered the openings with rawhide, then smeared pitch over it to make the containers watertight.
The names given to this grain by the hemisphere's original inhabitants say a great deal about its importance in their lives. What we call corn translates in various native languages as "Our Mother," "Our Life," and "She Who Sustains Us." It is unfortunate that one of the greatest agricultural gifts of Indian America to the world is now primarily known by its most pedestrian name.
Some Grains Are More Equal Than Others
Very little of what we now know about corn was known to the first settlers. Realizing that it would be essential to survival in their new environment, they began cultivating it immediately, and with great success, as indicated by this 1630 testimony of Francis Higginson: "the aboundant encrease of [Indian] Corne proves this Countrey to bee a wonderment. Thirtie, fortie, fiftie, sixtie are ordinarie here: yea Josephs encrease in Ægypt is out-stript here with us. Our planters hope to have more then a hundred fould this yere." When Edward Johnson looked back two decades later on the first years of settlement, he echoed Higginson's appreciation of how well corn had thrived in the soil of New England and how important this had been to the initial success of the colonial venture: "and assuredly when the Lord created [Indian] Corne, hee had a speciall eye to supply these his peoples wants with it, for ordinarily five or six graines doth produce six hundred."
Despite the gratifying productivity of their cornfields, the settlers' attitude toward their new staff of life was, to say the least, ambiguous. When the niece of John Winthrop Jr. wrote to her uncle from her home in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1649 about her many troubles, one of the ways she chose to summarize and praise her husband's willingness to place her needs before his own was to note that he "eats Indian [corn] that I might eat whet [wheat]." Likewise, Edward Johnson recalled that "the want of English graine, Wheate, Barly, and Rie proved a sore affliction to some stomacks, who could not live upon Indian Bread and water, yet were they compelled to it till Cattell increased, and the Plows could but goe."
As one scholar has recently stated, the primary tendency in these early accounts was less to complain openly about Indian corn, these various comments notwithstanding, than to say as little about it as possible, thereby minimizing its importance in the colonists' diet. When Johnson turned to brag about the prosperity that he claimed had been achieved in New England by the 1650s, he mentioned corn only in order to draw a contrast between the past and present penury of the natives, forced to live on "parch't Indian corn incht out with Chestnuts and bitter Acorns," and the current well-being of the English, among whom "now good white and wheaten bread is no dainty." The foods of the good life, in Johnson's representation, were wheat bread, meat from domesticated livestock, poultry, wine, sugar, and such fruits as apples and pears.
The corn that had served "to the great refreshing of the poore servants of Christ, in their low beginnings" in the 1630s was treated in the 1650s as though it no longer played any part whatsoever in the settlers' increasingly comfortable way of life. But we know that this was not true: corn remained a crucial component of the diet of the New World English throughout the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century. What accounts for the reluctance of Edward Johnson and others to acknowledge the importance of a foodstuff that was making it possible for the new colonies not just to survive but to flourish?
Part of the answer is simply that the colonists were homesick for the familiar foods they had left behind in England. However, considerably more than nostalgia was involved. The nature of the grain that one consumed had been a matter laden with social significance since ancient times.
Excerpted from America's Founding Food by Keith Stavely Kathleen Fitzgerald Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||This beautiful noble eare : corn||4|
|2||Baked and in a pie : beans and pumpkins||49|
|3||A knowen and staple commoditie : fish and shellfish||71|
|4||Every thing is moving and changing : cookbooks and commerce||120|
|5||Fresh and sweet pasture : fowl, game, and meat||148|
|6||Of a fruity flavor : apples, preserves, and pies||198|
|7||The cake came out victorious : gingerbread, election cake, and doughnuts||232|
|8||Delicious draught : cider, rum, tea, and coffee||260|