One hallmark of Appalachian cuisine is the innovative use of the food available from the land and rivers — and the celebration of it.
But Appalachians weren’t the first group of people to employ this strategy. Rather, we have the Native Americans to thank for many growing techniques (among other things, like land, etc.) that have served as the basis for a number of meals.
Staples like corn, beans and squash — known as the Three Sisters — not only grow well together, but they also thrive. Native Americans had been growing this vegetable trio for centuries before folks like Appalachians began to integrate the sisters into dishes like soups, stews and succotash.
“Native Americans here knew this from the start, growing corn, beans, and squash — the ‘three sisters’ — together because of their symbiotic relationship. Corn removes nitrogen from the soil, and beans replace it. Cornstalks provide a natural trellis for the bean plants to climb on. Low-growing squash plants create shade and hold in moisture,” according to Fred Sauceman’s essay, “What Exactly is Appalachian Cuisine?”
The small ecosystem exists in a mound, with the three plants working together to deter weeds and pests, enrich the soil and support one another. Here is how it all comes together:
The cornstalks in the center offer necessary support to the pole beans, which climb toward the sun.
The pole beans pull nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil via their web-like bean roots.
The large, broad leaves of sprawling squash provide shade for the soil to keep it cool and moist by slowing evaporation and prevent weeds.
The prickly hairs on the squash leaves also deter pests, like raccoons.
The pole beans grow up through the squash vines and around the cornstalks to hold all Three Sisters together.
In companion planting, each element — or plant — contributes to create a nutritionally balanced harvest, while helping the others succeed. Together, they produce a whole that is greater than the sum of their parts.
I think that could be symbolic of many things — not only Appalachian food and these important vegetables that provide a framework for so many of our meals, but also our communities, our state and our culture.
It’s a time where we, like the Three Sisters, are meant to unite and work toward a better outcome — together.