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Ancient Agriculture

The essence of sustainability.

Living in Arizona as I became a serious cook made me very aware of our easy access to uniquely southwestern ingredients, everyday foods we took for granted. I lived just blocks from a pecan and date farm, my family backyard was filled with citrus and avocado trees, and my high school treks to the bus stop passed pomegranate trees that lined the road. But I also learned about the role traditional crops played in the local economy and regional styles of cooking, reflecting influences from Mexico and native peoples.

Careful and creative farming practices that stretch back into the haze of history still thrive today in the American desert southwest. Crops that are now commonly found around the world — corn, beans, squashes, hot chiles, tomatoes and more — migrated on the waves of New World exploration, but originated with native farmers.

Over centuries the dynamic system of milpa, the Mesoamerican system of rotating complementary food crops, along with medicine and fiber production, has sustained generations of indigenous families. What’s often called the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — is a simplified form of milpa which can include 12 to 20 annual plants that grow in a mutually beneficial way and help retain nutrients in the soil.

The remarkable aspect of these growing methods is how they consistently succeeded on such a harsh, arid landscape. An extreme climate with minimal rainfall, with periodic violent rainstorms that threatened to wash crops away, would not be anyone’s idea of a perfect gardening situation. Yet long ago farmers figured out how to make the most of what they had, developing some of the best examples of truly sustainable agriculture.

Original foods of the desert.

The milpa farming cycle is much harder to maintain in this era of large scale agriculture. But southwestern farmers who have access to enough land still try to maintain milpa methods in addition to growing other cash crops and hay for livestock. But beyond corn, squashes (from pumpkins to zucchini and chayote) and beans, many other plants were cultivated by pre-Columbian farmers. Varieties include hot chiles, potatoes, sunflowers (for seeds), tomatoes, tomatillos, avocado, jicama, nopales (from the prickly pear cactus), cassava (or manioc, the source of tapioca) and herbs such as epazote.

A master sauce.

A classic sauce made from hulled pumpkin seeds, fresh tomatillos, hot chiles and leafy cilantro is a choice way to use every bit of the summer and fall harvests. Making its way from central Mexico, it’s a cousin in the popular family of moles, a term that originates from a Nahuatl or Aztec word for sauce. The word salsa also means sauce in Spanish, so whatever you call it, it’s all about buzzing up a luscious condiment for roasted or grilled poultry or meat. In New Mexico, a pipian sauce is often served with wild turkey, but here we’re making a saucy platter of bone-in chicken breasts ready-made for a celebration or Sunday supper.

The key to deepening flavor is toasting the pumpkin seeds (pepitas) well and seeking out the ripest tomatillos. Look for a brilliant limey green color when you peek through their papery husks. It’s best to use smaller ones that tend to have a more tangy-sweet taste.

A healthy spirit in traditional food ways.

So what’s the relevant takeaway from learning about these very old growing methods? Consider the explosion of community gardens. Their renewed emphasis on small, efficiently laid out plots, rainwater recycling, food waste composting and the support and sharing of the abundance of locally grown food all harken back to a time of communal food ways. When farmers are successful so is the entire community. It’s an age-old story of the value of keeping our roots deep in the earth and our fingers in the soil.