Corn, beans and squash – An enduring trinity

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Long before the Pilgrims sailed into Plymouth harbor, tribes living in what today is called Arizona developed a distinctive cuisine around corn, beans and squash. It was corn, believed to be the ultimate source of life, that dominated.
The earliest cultivars came in an array of colors – red, yellow, white, and blue so dark and inky it matched the night skies hovering above the pueblo rooftops. Both the Anasazi – dry farmers par excellence – and tribes in the southern part of the state that developed irrigation produced ample harvests that allowed the development of an impressive cuisine.

Kneel down bread, for example, is a Navajo variation on the Spanish green corn tamale.

The dish gets its name from the position one assumes when working on a grinding stone or metate, and it uses corn fresh from the fields. While the tender, sweet corn commonly found in supermarkets will work, the chewier, more substantial varietals in white or yellow that Arizona tribes have grown for centuries is preferred.

To make kneel down bread, remove the husks from the ears of corn, carefully saving large pieces for the tamales. Then cut the kernels from the cob, using the tip of the knife to get the last of the creamy corn milk.

Grind the kernels into a thick pudding, either per tradition with a mono and metate or in the blender. The pudding is great baked in the corn husks as is, or with the addition of chopped green chilis or even diced tomato or red peppers.

“My mother always baked a big corn cake and never fooled with those small tamales the Mexicans make,” said Alice Begay, of Tsaile, Ariz. “She would cover a bed of hot coals with corn husks and then spread the corn over that. Then she layered on more husks, more coals, and covered the whole thing over with earth.

We still do that sometimes today, especially if we’ve just butchered and have a good fire that’s burning down. But more often I’ll just make it in the oven in the house. I layer the husks on some tin foil and then put the corn in and more husks on top and make a packet that way.”

The Hopi – who, like the Anasazi, raise abundant harvests of corn without the aid of irrigation – have elevated the cuisine surrounding all colors of corn to high art.

Among the many celebrated breads, dumplings, stews and tamales they make is a dish called paatupsuki, a soup of beans and corn. This combination is not only great comfort food, the combination of beans and corn yields complete protein with a full complement of amino acids similar to that found in meat.

After dry pinto beans are picked over in a Hopi tutsaya – a sifter basket made from split yucca that allows the tiny rocks that commonly end up in dry beans to fall through – they are set to cook on the stove top for two to three hours until soft and the water in the pot has turned to a creamy gravy.

That’s the easy part, since making hominy requires considerably more finesse. Still, if you’re cooking on the mesas, making hominy from scratch is the only way to go.

“In the old days we used ashes that we made from burning juniper greens. But I’m lazy to do all that, since you have to go out and get the greens, and then make a fire, and finally boil them in water and strain them,” said Iola Tewa, of Second Mesa.

“Baking soda works pretty much as well as long as you make sure to get it all rinsed off once the husks on the corn loosen. You don’t want any soda taste left on your hominy.”

Tewa boils white corn in liberal amounts of water two to three hours, adding two tablespoons of soda for every two quarts of water and two cups of corn. Once the soda causes the corn to puff up and the hulls loosen, she pours off the water and rinses her hominy before she works the loose hulls off by hand.

“It sounds like a lot of work, when so many of them just want to open a can these days. We tease and call them ‘microwave miwis’ [wives],” she said, chuckling.

“So once you get your corn all done, you’re ready to make paatupsuki. Just mix the hominy and beans together. Then you call all your family to come and eat. Usually I’ll roast some green chili, too. It’s kwangwa – I guess even you poor people who don’t speak Hopi can figure out what that means!”

Hopi humor and corn aside, squash may be on the lowest rung of the food trinity, but it still shines.

Think of squashes picked green in early summer and fried up diced with onion, garlic and green chili ready to savor with thick, fresh tortillas. Or follow the route of the Pima and Papago women who fill squash blossoms, picked early in the morning when they are opened nicely, with a mash of cooked corn.

Sautee the whole works until golden brown, and the taste of these delicacies will speak of a time out of time when the indigenous people of Arizona concocted as many as 250 ways to prepare corn, all the while making sure squash and beans had accompanying roles worthy of their stature.

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This article by Jean Johnson first appeared in Indian Country Today