|The amaranth's red and green seed heads are filled with tens of thousands of tiny seeds.|
Well, this might just be a curious daydream for space travel lovers. However, it is a real fact that the US astronauts carry amaranth seeds on board of their missions. It is lightweight and has a long shelf life, useful attributes for space travel, but most important of all; this ancient grain, with its origin in Mexico, is one of the world’s few complete foods.
The indigenous people of Mexico appreciated this grain more than corn, and worshipped it as a special gift of nature. For their ceremonial tributes to the amaranth grain, huautli in the nahuatl language, they sculptured figurines out of the seeds, and at the end of the rituals they broke them into small pieces and passed them around to the worshipers. Eating the seeds symbolized the assurance for a successful new harvest.
The newly arrived Spanish Catholic clergy, observing this, thought their ritual of Holy Communion was being mocked, consequently, they angrily outlawed the cultivation of amaranth under penalty of death. Removing one of the most nutritious grains from the indigenous diet caused a massive epidemic of malnutrition and starvation. For centuries amaranth was not cultivated as a crop in Mexico because of this taboo, yet interestingly, the plant was taken to nearly every corner of the world by early explorers. Even today it is still appreciated around the globe for its health properties, beauty and color.
Amaranth is a very resilient plant and almost impossible to wipe out, with each flower producing about 60,000 seeds. The plant needs very little water and will grow in almost any soil without care. With present renewed awareness of its nutritional benefits, commercial cultivation is beginning to be developed again in Mexico, primarily in the state of Puebla, where it originated more than 7,000 years ago.
To find out what happens to the seeds once they are harvested, 15 curious persons from San Miguel de Allende and Querétaro recently traveled to a small village near San Juan del Rio in the state of Hidalgo. Arriving at the gate of the amaranth processing plant, we were greeted by a wildly waving man, dressed in blue hospital scrubs, Dr. Benito Manrique de Lara, the director and mastermind of this unique operation.Twenty-six years ago, after working for many years in India and Europe, Benito (as he is generally referred to and a native of Columbia) found himself in the middle of nowhere in Mexico with an offer (more like a challenge) to restore an amaranth processing plant that had fallen into ruins.
The nearby village had no water, electricity or roads. The houses were made of stones and any found materials and its inhabitants, families left behind by the nearby ex-hacienda after the revolution, were mostly illiterate. These were the only people Benito had close by to help him, unless he would recruit more skilled people from within several hours of commuting. Benito decided make a primary investment in human capital and began working with what he had on hand, and then bringing the amaranth plant back to life. The villagers, with Benito’s encouragement, literally build a new life for themselves. Their hamlet soon had water, electricity and roads. Once the basic infrastructure was in place, they began simultaneously to build the factory and continued work on their village.
Today they have a church, school, ball courts, a health care center, a daycare center, a zócalo for fiestas, a social center and a media room with access to computers. Their homes are now solid constructions with enough yards and greenery around to grow vegetables and keep chickens, burros and cows. The children in the village, thanks to their amaranth formulas and fresh foods, have zero malnutrition, one of the very few rural places in Mexico able to claim so.
The progress of the village went hand in hand with the construction and development of the factory. Again, this was all done with the original village population. Some machinery for processing the amaranth was either too expensive or did not exist and Benito challenged his crew to come up with designs for the needed equipment. Experimenting with little toy models at first eventually resulted in the construction of very sophisticated and highly functional huge machinery.
|Covered in blue from head-to-toe for the tour.|
|Benito explaining the specialized machinery in the amaranth factory.|
|Amaranth seed cakes (Alegria)|
|Baby formula created with amaranth seeds.|
The cooks in the village were very gracious and prepared lunch for us with an amazing array of flavorful dishes. Each cook proudly told us what she had made from the fresh vegetables, chickens, beans and corn. There were handmade tortillas, tamales, chilaquiles, amaranth greens, salsas, flautas, crisp cabbage salad and lots of fresh ranch eggs, just to mention a few.
|Beans with lettuce and egg garnish|
What an amazing experience. My account is by far only a rough sketch of our experience as the details could nearly fill a book. I hope that you get a glimpse of what can be done with dedication, determination and trust in the human capacity to learn. Benito is my hero!
This article was published in La Atención June 17, 2011
|Hiding behind an amaranth plant in Chicago.|
This amazing amaranth grew in Rick Bayless' Chicago garden. The following year there was amaranth growing within blocks of his garden. A testimony to the plants hardiness; the seeds withstood the brutal Chicago winter.