Monday, May 14, 2018

Chile Pepper and Tomato Time

 It is hot and dry, just the conditions that our favorite edibles originating in South America adore. A decade ago, research reported in the Journal of Science concluded the chile pepper may be the oldest cultivated spice in the Americas. A 6,100 year old archaeological specimen, a bowl, was found intact. As scientists scraped the residue, they found it contained both chile peppers and corn. In all, seven New World sites have found chile pepper residues and also the remnants of corn. This would suggest that these two foods, still intimately paired in South American cuisine, have been used as staples since ancient times.
Additionally scientists found chile pepper residues in utensils in both the Amazon basin and on the coast of Ecuador. This is positive indication that cultivation occurred in coastal and tropical cultures, which until now were considered primitive. The peppers were important enough to be traded across the huge mountain range to the home of the sophisticated and advanced Incas.
Within decades of contact with European Conquistadors, the New World plant was carried across Europe and into Africa and Asia where it was met with wild enthusiasm. Upon acceptance on these continents, it was further altered through selective breeding and today it is a cherished for its heat!
 Never to be outdone, researchers in the Middle East have recently claimed Chile peppers have actually been used 1,000 years earlier than the current South American 'oldest specimens'. The birthplace of agriculture has long been considered the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia where peppers were purportedly discovered at 10,000 year old sites.

Until that discovery the three oldest known spices were capers which have been found in Iran and Iraq; coriander found in Israel, and fenugreek found in Syria.  It is not known whether the capers, fenugreek, or coriander were domesticated or wild, however it has been determined that the peppers had been cultivated. *To be considered domesticated, a population of plants must have their behavior, life cycle or appearance significantly altered as a result of being under the control of humans for multiple generations.

Also originating in South America, tomatoes were prized by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD. They were brought to Europe from the Americas by Conquistadors in the early 1600’s but were considered poison by the wealthy.
Unfortunately, the flatware and plates of that time were made of lead based pewter and the acidic tomato caused the lead to leach from their dinnerware to the fruit. When it was eaten, the victims died of lead poisoning… a very unpleasant way to go. Peasants had no such finery in their kitchens and ate from wooden plates with wooden spoons. Thus the tomato was relegated as a food of the lower classes where it was widely accepted as a staple.
Not until the early 1800’s did the upper classes begin to embrace the tomato… by the time of the Civil War the tomato was accepted throughout the south as a garden and dietary staple.  Americans eat over 12 million tons of tomatoes each year, making it one of the most popular items on our menu…  Salsa anyone?
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Monday, May 7, 2018

Plantain is More Than a Weed

Plantain… a Cure All
Years ago I was gifted a few sprigs of the weed form of plantain by Marion Wise so I actually chose to introduce it to my garden. Mr. Wise lived several miles from us and we developed a friendship after I stopped by his place for fresh eggs. His home had no electricity and he cooked and heated with wood… his yard was a fascinating tangle of weeds and garden crops. Well into his eighties, he was a singular individual who had lived a life of service to others, taking nothing for himself… I admired him greatly. His parents had both died young so as the oldest, he took in and raised all of his siblings with tender devotion. Later in life he took in a mentally challenged man whose family had died leaving him lost and homeless. Mr. Wise was one of the few who still recalled the old ways to cure and heal… he would pluck something from the weed patch, crush it, adding a bit of oil to make a salve and it was a cure for skin cancer.
Unfortunately as life would have it, the demands of my young family kept me busy and my visits with him became fewer and fewer. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and suddenly he was gone.  With his passing all that he knew drifted out into the universe… and his home and gardens were flattened and bull dozed until there was no longer even a memory of them. I have long wished I had taken time to tap into the wealth of his knowledge for he was properly named... he was wise indeed.     
I planted the plantain and fairly soon it jumped the bed, spilled into the yard and actually took over my world. I could not recall why he had given me this terribly invasive plant and waged war on it until recently when I discovered it is indeed a miracle plant.
It is the only plant brought to the colonies from Europe where it was introduced to Native Americans … they called it White Man’s Foot as it was often found growing along well-trodden foot paths. From bee stings, snake bites and sunburns, to bronchitis, arthritis and cancer, this plant is revered among practitioners of folk medicine for its ability to cure just about anything.
 It kills bacteria and stops bleeding from wounds while preventing infection. The tonic will relieve coughing while it strengthens the heart, and the seeds can aid digestion. A salve using crushed leaves mixed with Vaseline can reduce the swelling and pain of hemorrhoids. A tonic of plantain will reduce fever, kill internal parasites, and also act as a diuretic. Applying crushed leaves will reduce the pain and swelling of arthritis and they will also bring relief to those with various eye conditions.   
To prepare a tea or tonic pick, wash, and pat the leaves dry. Place them in a bowl, cover them with boiling water, place a tight lid on and allow it to ‘steep’ for 30 minutes. Strain it, saving the leaves. It may be sipped as a warm tea or allowed to cool before sealing it in a glass jar to be used as a tonic. Do not toss the softened leaves… put them on a spot of psoriasis, poison ivy, eczema, bug bite, or pink eye… several applications will provide relief. Go to the yard and pick some… it’s everywhere!