Frugal cooking in the past often went way beyond simply trying to fill bellies. At it’s best, frugal cooks in the past made sure to fully utilize nutrition in the ingredients they used. We can learn a lot from historical practices…and mistakes.
One example of how one, very cheap and easy practice can make a huge difference in the quality of life of many is nixtamalization of corn, a traditional practice in Mexico. Unfortunately, those across the border in the US hadn’t (and haven’t) learned to copy this practice and it has had devastating effects.
“Consider maize (corn), towering grain of the Americas, a native food that would ultimately feed billions all over the world. True, this golden kernal has a wonderful taste, fantastic yields, and incredible adaptability to extreme climates. But, as food historian Sophie Coe has explained, what really made it a superior item was nixtamalization, a process developed by women somewhere in Central American, long before the time of Jesus. To make nixtamal, women soaked their corn grains in water with lime or wood ashes from their cooking fires, loosening the tough hulls that were characteristic of ancient strains of corn. The soaking made the kernels easier to grind into meal for tortillas. Or the cook might boil the nixtamal into a puffy ricelike dish called hominy (also called posole in the Southwest). Though these techniques made for good eating, much of the brilliance lay in the nutritional chemistry: alkali from the wood ashes enhanced the protein of the maize.
How much did this process really matter? Nixtamalized maize was so much better than the unprocessed kind, wrote Coe that ‘it is tempting to see the rise of Mesoamerican civilization as a consequence of this invention, without which the peoples of Mexico and their southern neighbors, would have remained forever on the village level.’
Some millennia later, Europeans would adopt corn without nixtamalization, contributing to widespread malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies such as pellagra.”
A Thousand Years over a Hot Stove, Laura Schenone, pg xxxi
Corn was introduced in Africa without nixtamalization. Because it became a staple food for many, it caused many nutritional deficiencies. When corn is nixtamalized, it released the vital nutrient B3. This prevents the painful disorder, pellegra. Pellegra makes you develop sore skin and mouths, makes you thin, listless and could cause depression, halucinations, irritability, and other mental disorders. In reality, Pellegra can and has ruined many lives.
In the Southern states, many of the poor depended on corn, once again without the nixtamalization process. Many of them suffered the devestating effects of pellegra because of it. While in Mexico, the poor did not suffer from it because their traditional practices saved them. It’s an important reminder of the power of cooking nourishing food using traditional practices.
“It is an ironic thought that the adoption of one simple “primitive” custom might have saved the tens of thousands of ruined lives in the Southern States.” A Diet of Tripe, Terence Mclaughlin as quoted in Nourishing Traditions.
You see, especially for the poor with limited resources, unlocking nutrients from grains, legumes, and corn is vital for well-being. When Europeans moved to America, they first survived because the Indians helped them. They would have done well to continue to learn and keep some of the Indians traditional practices, such as the Nixtamalization of corn.
And we would do well to learn from them now. It’s not to late! We can relearn these simple traditional practices. Especially if things get harder here in the US, it will be very important that we learn how to best use the food we have to best feed our family. Nixtamalization could help us do that.
For an example of how this is done, check out my recent soft polenta post. In my next post, I will be sharing more research about what Nixtamalization does. Releasing B3 is just part of the story.