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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 6, 2004 - Issue 108


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Nopalitos, Green Corn Tamales and Good Health

by Brenda Norrell Indian Country Today
credits: Mesquite beans are a traditional food of the Tohono O'odham and healthful for people with diabetes. Maria Garcia preparing red chile and fry bread with her mother-in-law,
Tohono O'odham Elena Garcia from Sonora, Mexico. Maria Garcia prepares green corn tamales, from fresh white corn, athome in the Tucson barrio.
(Photos by Brenda Norrell)

Mesquite beans are a traditional food of the Tohono O'odham and healthful for people with diabetes. (Photo by Brenda Norrell)TUCSON, Ariz. -Surrounded by a load of fresh Mexican corn, Maria Garcia talks of growing up in southern Mexico, where she harvested the cactus pads known as nopalitos and prepared fresh corn for traditional tamales.

Seated in a Tucson barrio with husband Jose Garcia, Tohono O'odham, she has a machete in hand and whacks the stem ends off of the fresh corn still in its husks.

"Green corn tamales are in our blood," Maria, Purepecha from Michoacan, said of the indigenous in Mexico.

In the Garcia home in a Tucson barrio, the making of tamales, salsa and nopalitos flows easily as indigenous people flow in from Mexico, tribal leaders and supporters of Zapatistas, all fighters for human rights in "the struggle."

Before there was a border, cactus and mesquite beans were foods from the desert for Aztec and O'odham. From the Sonoran Desert south to Central America, the fertile soil produced corn, squash and beans. Along the coast, Seri fished and in the mountains Tarahumara grew corn.

"People live longer over there," Maria said of Mexico. Here, in the United States she sees people aging faster and sick more often than in Mexico.

"I have a brother nearly 90-years-old and he's still working. He sells food from a cart in Michoacan every day." The tacos he sells are a specialty, barbecued tacos made from goat meat.

Remembering her childhood in the lush southern state of Michoacan, she said, "We used a lot of herbal remedies. When we had a cold, we never went to a drugstore, we used herbs. Our breakfast was fruits, like papaya and bananas. We weren't able to eat meat much; we ate a lot of vegetables and we hardly ever saw a doctor.

"Everything was eaten fresh," said Maria, whose cabinets are packed with dried herbal teas and tinctures of herbs. "I never heard of anyone having diabetes. We ate a lot of sugarcane, but it was natural."

Food here is like the language of love and is served up with prayer and laughter.

Explaining the science of making traditional tamales, she said the fresh white Mexican corn, grown near Wilcox or brought in from Mexico and sold from the backs of pickup trucks, makes the best green corn tamales.

The corn has to be milky, but not too watery, when it is cut from the cob. The good husks are saved for tamale making. After the corn kernels are cut from the cobs, the kernels are ground. In the traditional way, a grinding stone is used. In the modern way in Tucson, it is taken over to a tortilla-specialty store packed with red chiles and fresh tortillas, in the shadow of A Mountain, to be ground.

The fresh ground corn, called masa, is mixed with oil or shortening and a variety of cheeses, Mexican white or yellow. This dough is blended and placed in the husks, folded as tamales, and steamed for about an hour.

When she was a child in southern Mexico, green corn tamales were made without oil or shortening. But these days, to make tamales tender, they are usually made with lard in Mexico.

"I use Canola oil," Maria said. But she remembers the pure tamales of her childhood made with only fresh ground corn, served covered with chilies and cheese.

"We only had green corn tamales in season," she said of the summer months of harvest.

At home, she likes to make fresh salsa to go on green corn tamales by roasting jalapenos, tomatoes and garlic. There's one jalapeno for each tomato and a small handful of garlic bulbs. A bunch of fresh green cilantro, and salt to taste, is added to the roasted mixture in the blender or on the traditional grinding stone.

Nopalitos are one of her best-shared secrets, both at home and in her restaurant La Indita in Tucson.

"There's a lot of variety of cactus," she said, "But it seems like we're born knowing which ones are good and where they are at. When they're tender, they're good."

It's important to choose the large cactus known as garden cactus, because the small prickly pear varieties are bitter. "There's a lot of stickers, but you use a sharp knife and hold the cactus down with a stick or a fork, and scrape the stickers off." Then the nopalitos are cut in squares and boiled with salt. Then, the rinsed nopalitos are ready for salads or to be scrambled with eggs. Nopalitos, similar in taste to green beans, can be sautéed as a vegetable with onions, chiles, tomatoes and cilantro.

"That's the favorite," she said.

Grocery stores in Tucson sell nopalitos, but Jose Garcia said the store-bought cactus pads are not as good. "It's not the same."

A few doors down from Maria's La Indita Restaurant on Fourth Street in Tucson, is Native Seeds/Search, promoting Native seeds, wild foods and traditional farming.

Native Seeds shares medical research, including a study of Arizona tribes and Australian Aboriginals with high rates of diabetes. Researchers found the mucilage in foods like cactus beneficial to persons with diabetes. Beans, especially traditional Native beans such as black beans and wild mesquite beans, are healthful because they are slower to digest and provide a steady flow of sugar in the blood.

In Arizona, American Indians are dying far younger than other residents. The average age of death for Arizona Indians was 55.4 years, compared to 71.6 of other residents, in 2000.

Fast foods high in sugar, including soft drinks and candy, have replaced high-fiber nutritious Native foods, nutritionists report. Potato chips high in salt, and fried foods and canned meats high in fat, are replacing fresh foods. Gone too is the exercise of farming, hunting and gathering wild foods.

Remembering her childhood foods of Michoacan, Maria said the main food for Purepecha was a simple one, beans.

"My favorite was black beans," she said.

Beans are often in the pot on the stove, served with fresh flapped-tortillas, greeting visitors from the south.

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