At Christmastime in 1620, 102 passengers arrived at Plymouth, MA on the Mayflower. It was a brutal first winter, and by its end nearly half of the Pilgrims had perished. By the following November only 53 remained to celebrate their first harvest feast in the New World, the same feast we now recognize as the first Thanksgiving.
The truth is that without food from Native Americans during the Pilgrims’ first year and lessons in how to grow native crops, even fewer settlers would have survived.
Corn, squash and beans were Native American staples, which according to their legends would only grow and thrive together, watched over by three sister spirits whom they called “our sustainers.”
Native Americans planted these three vegetables in the same mounds, which today we know is a sustainable growing system that improves soil fertility and supplies a healthy diet.
According to the website, Renee’s Garden, “Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following year’s corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crop’s chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure. Corn, beans and squash also complement each other nutritionally. Corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn. Finally, squash yields both vitamins from the fruit and healthful, delicious oil from the seeds.”
With this word of caution, Renee’s garden website offers instructions for planting your own Three Sisters Garden: “Success with a Three Sisters garden involves careful attention to timing, seed spacing, and varieties. In many areas, if you simply plant all three in the same hole at the same time, the result will be a snarl of vines in which the corn gets overwhelmed.” (www.reneesgarden.com/articles/3sisters.html )
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 quart vegetable broth or chicken stock
1 butternut squash, approximately 1 1/2 pounds, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 cup corn kernels (fresh, frozen or canned)
1 16-ounce can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
12 teaspoon hot paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh basil leaves cut into thin ribbons
In a large skillet, heat 2 Tablespoons of oil. Add the onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until well softened. Add the cumin, oregano and paprika. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 4 minutes. Set aside.
In a large pot, bring the broth to a boil and add squash. Cook until squash is just tender, about 15 minutes. If using fresh corn kernels, add them at the beginning and cook with the squash; if using frozen or canned corn, add near the end of the cooking. Drain, reserving the liquid to add back later.
Combine cooked squash/corn mixture and cooked onion mixture, and add kidney beans all in one pot. Add enough liquid to make the stew the consistency that you like. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the beans are hot. Garnish stew with basil and serve.