As Thanksgiving approaches and the late autumn air grows colder, I find myself wanting to prepare corn, beans and squash more often as a way to connect to my Indigenous heritage.
Known as the Three Sisters, they are food staples in many Indigenous cultures of the Western Hemisphere, including my own: the Kanien’keha?ka or Mohawk nation, part of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy of present-day New York and southeastern Canada.
The prevalence of corn, beans and squash predates European contact, and their creation is found in our traditional, oral origin stories. It is said that when the daughter of Skywoman (who fell from the sky and made our continent, known as Turtle Island) died during childbirth, five plants grew where she was buried. From her heart grew strawberries; from her head, tobacco; corn from her breast; beans from her kidney; and squash from her navel.
The Three Sisters are eaten in the longhouse — the long, communal dwelling — at many of our Haudenosaunee ceremonies and festivals, including the O’rhotsheri (green bean), Okahsero:ta (green corn), Kanen’shon:a (seed) and Ka’khowanen (harvest) ceremonies. The longhouse, which was the multi-family clan living space for the Haudenosaunee in the time before European contact, is now predominantly used for ceremonial purposes.
Today, there are still many Haudenosaunee farmers who harvest the Three Sisters together using traditional, companion planting techniques. Through companion planting, specific plants are grown together to produce higher yields, better distribute nutrients and prevent soil erosion, among other benefits. The beans help convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form in the soil that all the plants can use. The corn acts as a support for the beans to climb, and the broad squash leaves help maintain soil temperature and hold in moisture.
My ista (mother), Lorraine Kaneratokwas Gray, continues to grow these plants together on her farm in New Mexico.
“The Three Sisters in the Mohawk language is Kiohehkwen, which literally means, ‘They give us life,’” Gray said. “That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Corn, beans and squash — along with wild game, strawberries and maple sap — were the main sustenance of the Mohawk people. Without them, there would be no life.”
In areas like the Southwest, where rainfall can be a rare commodity during many growing seasons, farmers may plant the Three Sisters in a sunken spot to help collect rainwater and dew to nourish the plants. Regions that typically experience excessive rainfall in the summer — like the Northeastern states — would traditionally grow these plants in mounds to keep the roots from getting oversaturated and “drowning.”
Some communities, like the Wampanoag Nation of
Massachusetts, place a fish in the mound with the seeds as a fertilizer. When the body of the fish deteriorates, the soil becomes fertilized as nitrogen is released.
Once the corn is fully grown, picked and dried, it is later processed in one of two ways for eating.
The first method traditionally involved pounding the corn kernels using a large mortar, made from a hollowed-out tree stump, and a pestle to break the dried kernels into corn flour. I learned this traditional, albeit labor-intensive process, during the summer of 2004, when I worked as a cultural interpreter at what was then called Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass.
The living history museum, now renamed Plimoth Patuxet, features reenactments of the English colony that sprang up there after colonists landed in 1620, and the Wampanoag tribe who already lived there.
While working at the Plimoth Plantation, we were dressed in the traditional, buckskin clothing of Northeastern tribes and demonstrating what life would have been like for Indigenous people in the 1620s. At least once a week, my daily assignment would be to tend to the fire and cook traditional foods over it, and when it was time to make boiled cornbread, I’d have to pound the corn kernels into flour by hand. In this modern era, at home, I use an electric grain grinder, coffee grinder or food processor to speed up the process. The flour can be used to make boiled cornbread or a corn mush porridge, depending on how finely or coarsely ground you make it.
The second processing method involves boiling the dried corn with hardwood ash to break open the hulls on the corn kernels, through a chemical process known as nixtamalization. It is then strained and washed using a traditional corn-washing basket, a Haudenosaunee utility basket with small holes in the base that allow water and the hulls to pass through.
Once the hulls are removed, the softened corn is used to make corn soup and Three Sisters rice.
Before colonization, salt and refined sugar would not have been present in the Indigenous diet, so some dishes (such as corn mush) use raw maple sap, maple syrup or locally foraged berries as a natural sweetener. Living in California, I am thousands of miles away from the Kanien’keha:ka territories where my family is from — Akwesasne in Upstate New York and Kahnawake in Quebec. Though I do not cook traditional dishes as often as I’d like, I try to incorporate the Three Sisters into my daily meals.
Preparing and consuming traditional foods like boiled cornbread is one way for me to feel like I am home again, especially as I celebrate Native American Heritage Month in November.
Whether it is eaten for ceremonial purposes or for brunch on Sunday morning with steak, eggs and gravy, boiled cornbread continues to be an important part of Haudenosaunee culinary culture.
White corn can be ordered online as corn flour or kernels from the Ganondagan State Historic Site’s Iroquois White Corn Project. In a pinch, other finely ground corn flours can be used in its place.
This recipe is a spin on the traditional preparation of boiled cornbread with kidney beans, but serving it with a butternut squash sauce means even those who are vegan or allergic to gluten can enjoy this dish.