Somebody once told me that food is a love letter. "Ok, yeah... I can see that...kinda" I thought at the time, but who sent this love letter?
I just had the incredible opportunity to spend three weeks traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico, where it became abundantly clear who wrote many of said love letters that so often find their way to my plate.
Oaxaca, Mexico is the motherland of corn. Their over 8,000 year old history with one of the most important plants in the wold isn't a claim to fame, it's a sacred way of life. The Spanish name for corn is maize, derived from the Taino word mahiz, meaning bringer of life. In English corn is simply a generic word for grain. In rural Oaxaca maize seemed to be the heartbeat of daily life. There is a rhythm of corn being planted, harvested, dried, stored, shucked, ground into flour, made into tortillas, cooked up into soup, turned into silage, and fed back to draft animals. Everyone from generation to generation played their part, all while carrying on their modern lives. Maize, most often in the form of tortillas makes an appearance at every meal.
The indigenous way of planting maize is with its two sisters beans and squash. This is called a three sister's planting. Planting maize with squash for ground cover and beans for nitrogen, which in return trellis themselves on the tall corn stocks, sounds like a fairly simple task. Trust me it's more complex then it seems. I've tried it a number of times, with terrible results. In one attempt the squash grew so fast that the corn and beans just got swamped out, another time the corn grew so tall I couldn't reach the beans and the birds harvested them before I ever could. However, in Oaxaca generations of farmers have found the exact match of seeds, the perfect spacing, and planted at just the right time. When the right relationship between sisters is struck they produce more together then they could alone. I hear whispers of these relationships when I think of the food on my table as a love letter.
A friend I met on the trip pointed out how the trees surrounding the fields had been trained to grow crooked. Pine tress that normally grew straight and tall, in this case were branched out to grow low and parallel to the ground. His ancestors had left behind a living fence! When corn is harvested it can be laid against these branches to fortify a wall to keep deer from eating the squash as it cures in the fields. Similarly he pointed out entire oak trees that had been shaped into giant baskets where farmers stored crop debris as silage for animal food. When stored off the ground and in the trees the silage didn't spoil during the rainy season. I had never seen an ancient farm field before and would have never put the trees and their function together. These are the kind of mysterious secrets that are revealed when I read those love letters at the table!
It all sounds very romantic, these love letters and all. But truth be told the seeds, water and earth that brought the food to your table have been selected and protected by thousands of generations around the world. Seeds that remained in production due to the hard work and ingenuity of our ancestors. Seeds that were saved by indigenous peoples despite stolen land, colonization, slavery, war and forced assimilation. The ones writing those love letters are your great great greatest grandparents. It was wholeheartedly nourishing to eat Oaxacan food and learn the love stories of the Wife of the Sun (another indigenous name for the humble corn plant) I'm eager to dig up more love stories, maybe I'll find one that my great grandma from Finland sent me. Perhaps I should start drafting some of my own!