The Quinoa in Your Backyard

 Today I saw the headline: Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

Which is appallingly stupid considering that quinoa is trendy among many segments of the health-conscious crowd. Like many articles of this genre, it also wants believe consumers have more power than they do. What would happen in Western health nuts stopped eating quinoa? Would this benefit the people there somehow? I guess it's more fun to blame trendy dieters than to face larger issues of water scarcity (and water pricing and allocation) and middlemen. It's the same faulty line of logic that many vegans use when talking about meat.

It is a bit amusing to consider how consumption of far away foods lets us turn a blind eye to their production (it's far), which is why I tend to advocate food systems that bring people closer to their food production- and its consequences. 

The article also details failed attempts to grow quinoa elsewhere. Interestingly enough, I was researching yesterday traditional foods of the Midwest, and I'm not talking about Chicago Hot Dogs, but about what people were eating and growing here in the 1600s and before. Turns out the form of agriculture indigenous to this region utilized a relative of quinoa - Chenopodium berlandieri. As a cultivated crop, only remnants remain and from what I can gather, nothing of the kind grown for seeds the way quinoa is grown now. A leaf-heavy version is eaten in Mexico as a vegetable.

But echoes remain. All those lamb's quarters growing out of your patio are ghosts of The Eastern Agricultural Complex- possibly feral ancestors of domesticated crops, which explains some of their tenacity as weeds. I would think it would be possible to re-domesticate through selective breeding. It already makes a fine salad. Wild food enthusiast Euell Gibbons found the grains even of the modern weed somewhat easy to harvest:

“In rich soil,” he said, “lamb’s quarters will grow four or five feet high if not disturbed, becoming much branched. It bears a heavy crop of tiny seeds in panicles at the end of every branch. In early winter, when the panicles are dry, it is quite easy to gather these seeds in considerable quantity. Just hold a pail under the branches and strip them off. Rub the husks between the hands to separate the seed and chaff, then winnow out the trash. I have collected several quarts of seed in an hour, using this method.

“The seeds are quite fine, being smaller than mustard seeds, and a dull blackish-brown color....I find it pretty good food for humans.”

I think this also brings me to question certain studies that have tried to estimate the amount of wild grains foragers could have harvested- the ones we encounter now might be feralized crops, not true wild seeds or grains. That might also be why many are less toxic than truly wild seeds/grains. It's probably worth soaking and rinsing though since like quinoa, it may contain high levels of saponins. 

Another former crop, Sumpweed, Jared Diamond says was abandoned because it was allergenic and smelled bad, but that didn't stop modern farmers from reshaping rapeseed, a crop that seems quite far from edible with its high levels of nasty erucic acid, into canola, which is now a novel and strangely unquestioned ubiquitous part of our food supply. Plenty of other foods that foragers and agriculturalists eat are toxic when harvested- that is often a feature, not a bug, as it keeps other competing pests away. Humans are smart enough to detoxify through soaking, rinsing, fermentation, and other technologies.

It's interesting how so many Americans look to afar for interesting foods while ignoring the ones in our backyards. 

There is also a legend that quinoa is "cursed" which is why North American production has been so difficult, but I find it more logical to think that the Chenopodium that is Quinoa is adapted to a specific environment that we can't offer. There is also some evidence that ancient northern Europeans cultivated a type of Chenopodium as well, remnants of that perhaps are seen in England's Pigweed.