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
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.
corn tamales are in our blood," Maria, Purepecha from Michoacan,
said of the indigenous in Mexico.
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."
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.
live longer over there," Maria said of Mexico. Here, in the United
States she sees people aging faster and sick more often than in
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.
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.
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."
here is like the language of love and is served up with prayer and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
only had green corn tamales in season," she said of the summer months
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.
are one of her best-shared secrets, both at home and in her restaurant
La Indita in Tucson.
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."
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.
the favorite," she said.
stores in Tucson sell nopalitos, but Jose Garcia said the store-bought
cactus pads are not as good. "It's not the same."
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.
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.
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.
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.
her childhood foods of Michoacan, Maria said the main food for Purepecha
was a simple one, beans.
favorite was black beans," she said.
are often in the pot on the stove, served with fresh flapped-tortillas,
greeting visitors from the south.