11 North American Staple Foods

 So many of the foods we eat originated growing close by. Some have been more domesticated than others, and some are now enjoyed all over the globe! Let's explore some 11 examples of foods with roots in the Americas, half of which are native to Canada! 


1. Squash

Squash was domesticated by indigenous peoples in the Americas about 10,000 years ago, thousands of years before maize! Initially squash plants were only eaten by mega-fauna and the fruits were extremely bitter. They were not appetizing to humans and other small animals until after domestication. Around 20 species of wild squash grew among the temperate to tropical climates throughout their native range. 

Compared to other domestication processes, the domestication of squash happened very quickly. Most all of our domesticated squash we enjoy today came from just five species in the genus Cucurbita (C. argyrosperma, C. ficfolia, C. maxima, C. moscha and C. pepo). People domesticated them for edibility, rind thickness and seed size. Now, there are more than 100 varieties available that have been selected for flavour, winter storage capabilities, yield, appearance, etc. 

2. Acorns

Acorns are a staple collected and enjoyed by many Indigenous cultures, and they are a very versatile food source if processed properly. Considering how many acorns a mature oak can offer each year, they are a very abundant food source where oak trees grow, requiring little effort to harvest.

After acorns are collected the bitter tannic acid needs to be removed. This can be done by soaking the acorns in water, the length of time needed to soak depends on the species of oak the acorns come from. Red oaks have more tannic acid than white oaks and need to be soaked for a couple of weeks.

After the tannic acid and bitterness has been removed the acorns can be used in many ways. Acorns can be ground into flour to use in a wide variety of preparations, or served as an acorn mush that is called Wiiwish. Some foragers also use acorns to make soups, non-dairy cheese, grits, coffee replacements, and beer! 

3. Cranberry

Cranberries offer a tart, fresh flavour that pairs well with so many foods, and they're native to Canada! Cranberries are an important part of the traditional diets of many indigenous cultures in North America. It's one of the main ingredients in pemmican, a high protein food made from dried berries, dried meat and animal fat. Cranberries are also packed with antioxidants and have several medicinal uses. They are also traditionally used as a dye to turn mats, rugs and blankets a beautiful red. Cranberries can be found in bogs and moist acidic soils across North America.

Commercially, cranberries are grown in human-made bogs to control water levels and make harvesting easier, but the plants have not been heavily domesticated or changed from what you find growing wild in bogs across Eastern Canada. 


4. Corn

Corn was domesticated by indigenous people thousands of years ago from a variety of grass called Teosinte, which is still present and growing in Mexico. Teosinte has a different growth form than maize (corn) does, there are multiple branches coming off the main stem and they have kernels forming on each stem. Over time people selected for less branches so the plant would concentrate all its energy into the production of one or two larger "ears". They also selected for plants that grew more, larger kernels until they were cultivating something more similar to what we consider corn today. 

Corn was brought up the Mississippi river and traded with tribes and communities across the continent. With trading, many more types of corn were born. Every region began selecting for the characteristics that they most desired, and hundreds of types of corn are now present. They vary in the conditions that they can grow in like the soil and climate. They vary greatly in kernel size, kernel number, colour and the amount of starch present. Now, in most parts of the world, there is a corn variety that will suit the conditions where you live.

However, most varieties of corn are not what you might think of right away. Most corn that's not grown for animal feed is grown for grinding and using as a grain. This is how it was used for thousands of years. "Sweet corn" is a little bit more recent. If you're buying corn seed, you will usually see the variety described as either a popping corn, a sweet corn, or dent (grain) corn. 

5. Jerusalem Artichoke

Also known as Sunchokes, are a member of the sunflower family native to Eastern North America, including several Canadian provinces. They produce tubers that can be eaten and are comparable to potatoes.

The carbohydrate most common in sunchokes is inulin which is a polymer of the sugar fructose. When stored, the inulin breaks down into fructose and the sunchokes become sweet, since fructose is 1.5 times as sweet as sucrose. Inulin is not assimilated in the intestine therefore does not cause the same glycemic spike that potatoes do.

This plant is easy to grow, does not require many nutrients and will naturally spread if left alone.


6. Fiddleheads

Fiddleheads are the coiled emerging stems and leaves of the Ostrich Fern and can be found in the North Central and Eastern United States and across most of Canada. They are amongst the earliest foods available for foragers in the spring. They are similar in texture and taste to asparagus, but can also be compared to green beans. They are also prepared similarly, simply sautéed with butter and garlic.

7. Wild Ramps

Wild ramps or wild leeks are a type of wild Allium that can be found in Eastern Canada and United States. They have a distinct onion smell when the leaves are crushed and that's how you can differentiate them from their lookalikes. Wild ramps have a very slow rate of growth and their above ground form is only seen in the spring because once it flowers the leaves die back and everything that is alive remains underground.

Ramps are some of the first greenery that you will see in the spring as their ecology requires them to throw out their greenery and soak up the suns rays in the under-story before the leaves of the trees they grow under can put out their leaves. With such a limited window for obtaining energy they grow and spread very slowly. Due to this, harvesting must be done with the utmost care and restraint as to not damage the stand and allow for sustainable harvesting down the road.

8. Pawpaw

Pawpaws are North Americas largest fruiting trees and are extremely widespread in the eastern half of the USA. This is thought to be because the Indigenous peoples of the areas made efforts to plant these trees and reap their rewards. The pawpaw fruit is a tropical tasting fruit, the rest of its relatives are much more southern dwelling in tropical climates. Pawpaws are relatively high in protein and fats for a fruit and contain three times the vitamin C as an apple and double the riboflavin of oranges. There are Pawpaws growing wild in the warmest areas of Canada, though they are not widespread. 

9. Amaranth

Amaranth is considered a pseudo-grain as it is not officially a grain but contains a similar nutrient profile to grains but at the same time are considered a source of protein. In addition to the seeds the sprouts, micro-greens and leaves are all edible.

Amaranth has a tragic story, similar to several of these North American foods. It was first cultivated 8000 years ago by Indigenous peoples of south and central America and was a vital staple crop in those regions. As part of Spanish colonization in the region the crop was outlawed and fields were burned. Thankfully some small pockets of the grain survived the violence and we can still enjoy Amaranth today.

10. Potatoes

Potatoes have been cultivated by the Inca people in Peru for thousands of years, and they are now grown all over the globe. It is hard to pinpoint an exact time frame of when they were first cultivated, tubers do not preserve well for archeological discovery.

Potatoes were essential to Inca people and they learned how to dehydrate and mash them into a substance that could store for 10 years! This allowed for insurance if crops should fail. This carbohydrate dense crop is truly the definition of a staple food, they can be stored easily and eaten throughout the year and provide sustenance when its needed most. The Spanish brought potatoes to Europe but it took some clever convincing to get Europeans to cook and eat them at first.  

11. Beans

Beans originated as a wild vine in Central and South America and were cultivated and eventually domesticated by Indigenous peoples of the region. Beans were first cultivated more than 7000 years ago by people in southern Mexico and in Peru.

Today there are thousands of types being grown all around the world and is a very important food source for many cultures. There is incredible diversity in the appearance, textures, flavours, colours, uses, and growth habits in the beans grown today. 

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