Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Remembrance of Amaranths Past

“…And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.” — Marcel Proust, "Remembrance of Things Past"

Proust’s seven-volume opus has long been one of my favorite novels.  And amaranth has long been one of my favorite flowering plants. 


So, having recently moved to northern New Mexico, and being somewhat a gardener as well as a fan of history, I was excited to learn that not only does this tall maroon-colored weed with spinach-shaped leaves grow here, but it also played a major role in the lives of the ancient residents of this area.  But I was most surprised to hear that this “everlasting flower” (as it translates) at on time was banned and destroyed by the Spanish colonists because of its use in native pagan practices.

Marsha and I were first introduced to amaranth back in Wethersfield, Connecticut by her parents who, unbeknownst to us while we were at work one day, sowed some of their seeds into our small backyard vegetable garden.  The big red weed became our most successful crop that year.   Being self-seeding plants their location shifted from season to season.  Yet they always remained the star of that garden.  However the in-law connection is  likely the primary cause of my affection for the plant, which, like Proust’s madeleine triggers pleasant memories of people in my own life story.


Likewise the sight of tansy precipitates involuntary memories of J, a dear friend of Marsha’s and mine and a master gardener who gave us what became a patch of this yellow, perennial, herbaceous flowering plant that we placed within shouting distance of the amaranth.  The herb garden at El Rancho de las Golondrinas living history museum where we volunteer likewise has a tansy bed, which now touches off the same reminiscences. 

However Marsha and I had not seen any amaranth during the fifteen months since we moved out here until we visited the Santa Fe Botanical Garden where more than a dozen amaranths form a phalanx above their terraced vegetable garden.  Docents S and K explained briefly the plant’s place in New Mexico’s dietary and fiber arts history – and the Spanish Colonial’s distrust and destruction of it.  Both of which prompted further research on my part.

Similar to our own surprise introduction to the tall red plant, amaranth (which is native to the Americas) was happened upon and harvested before being domestically planted around 4,000 BC in Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley (also believed to be the first place maize was ever cultivated by humankind.)  From there, it is considered to have spread to the Southwestern United States via ancient trading routes.

Unlike Marsha and me, these Late Archaic-era Mesoamericans, and later-in-time Southwestern Indians found many practical uses for the seeds and leaves of the plant.  Native Americans in general have eaten amaranth seeds for thousands of years, while the Apache and Navajos used amaranth to make flour for bread.  Aztecs and later the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) people of what is now Mexico would make “pinole” by grinding and toasting the amaranth, mixing it with sugar, spices, and a bit of water to then be eaten as hot cereal or cooked into cakes. Amaranth flour, mixed with cornmeal, was also made into dumplings.  And the seeds were popped like popcorn and sometimes mixed with honey, chocolate, and pumpkin or sunflower seeds for Day of the Dead and other celebrations.

And, before the advent of corn, amaranth was used to make tortillas.

The Spanish Colonials and Priests however were not that concerned about the culinary practices of this newly conquered people (many of which they adopted) as much as they were about their religious rituals.

Fray Diego Duran was a Franciscan Friar whose job was to help his fellow priests identify and wipe out the pagan practices that they found among the Aztecs during and even after the Spanish conquest of Mexico.  He compiled his findings, including his long list of forbidden foods, in the Book of the Gods.


As described in “AnthroSource”, a publication of the American Anthropological Association, “Duran was particularly concerned with parallels between Aztec and Christian religion, for he believed the natives often associated pagan beliefs with Catholic rites. He noted that Easter fell in the same season as the pre-Conquest feast for the Aztec tribal god Huitzilopochtli. Both feasts celebrated human sacrifice through rites of Holy Communion. When the Aztecs consumed bits of dough [made from amaranth] sprinkled with the blood of sacrificial victims they claimed they had eaten the flesh and bones of their gods just as Christians believed they received the body and blood of Christ at communion.”

Amaranth was clearly a no-no – so deeply engrained into the fabric of the native’s spiritual consciousness that it had to be eliminated.  The crops were destroyed and its growth or use was banned.  Penalties for violations were harsh – e.g. severing hands.  However the plant still grew abundantly in the wild.  So while its ritual use disappeared (or at least disappeared from the friar’s view), it remained a staple of the Mesoamerican diet  – while the Colonial Spaniards continued to use the native word “huautli”, meaning amaranth greens to refer to greens of all kinds.

Here in New Mexico amaranth was used by the Hopi as a natural dye to color their world-renowned piki bread.  (Baker CreekHeirloom Seed Company, which now owns Comstock Ferre Seeds in our former home of Wethersfield, sells what it calls Hopi Red Dye Amaranth.)  Apache, Chiricahua and Navajo ground the seeds into flour to make bread and ate the young plants eaten as greens.

And amaranth leaves were used by the Navajo in religious ceremonies to “smoke for lewdness” during the Coyote Chant, according to Tsvetelina Stefanova writing in Native Plants of Arizona.  Definitely not something Fray Diego Duran was interested in seeing continue.

The late poet Gertrude Stein wrote, "A rose is a rose is a rose" – generally interpreted as meaning "things are just what they are – no more, no less." 

Ms. Stein certainly has more literary clout than me – but I sincerely doubt the accuracy of that particular observation.   It certainly is not true of any garden plant that we have ever been given.  Like the tea-infused madeleine, each flower carries within it the power to invoke involuntary memories of things past – “in the sensation which that material object will give us,” as Proust would put it.

The Aztecs, the Native Americans – and most definitely the Spanish Conquistador Franciscan Friars – clearly understood that.


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