The smell of sage permeated the lecture hall as the Native American dishes simmered in crockpots.
For the past four years, the members of the Rim Country Chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society (RCCAAS) have prepared a native foods potluck to celebrate Arizona’s Archaeology and Heritage month — March. More than two-dozen people cooked up corn, beans and squash, the foods Southwest Native Americans cultivated and survived on for centuries.
Corn represented the backbone of Native American culinary dishes, as did the selections foods at the potluck, including corn beer.
“Corn was a sacred food to the Native Americans,” said Alan Dart, the professional archaeologist who lectured on Southwestern pottery to the RCCAAS members.
Corn shows up in Mexican archeological discoveries from as far back as 10,000 years ago. The University of Utah credits scientists in genetic archaeology with discovering the origin of corn.
Geneticists discovered the grass teosinte is the parent of maize or corn. Only five genes separate these two plants.
Ancient farmers created corn/maize by selecting seeds from teosinte plants that made larger more starchy seeds or produced grains that ground better than other seeds. Over a short period of time, the maize or corn plant began producing crops that enabled families to stay in one place and produce enough food to thrive on a small plot of land.
These ancient farmers would use their pottery or baskets to slow cook their meals, said Dart.
That could explain why so many dishes were stews and why these ancient cultures started fermenting a corn-based beer called tiswin, which Chuck Howell, one of the RCCAAS members made for the feast.
“Beer was used for ceremonial purposes,” said corn brew master Howell.
He learned about the ingredients for his corn beer from research done by archaeologist Glenna Dean.
Dean discovered shards of pots she theorized the ancients used for beer fermentation. She contacted Sandia National Laboratories and used their gas chromatography and mass spectrometry machinery to analyze the microscopic leftovers of alcoholic elements on shards of pottery she collected from New Mexico pueblo sights.
The research defined the various ingredients used by the Southwest Native Americans. Howell printed up the ingredients for RCCAAS members. His list provided the medicinal values of each ingredient, including some offering impressive benefits.
Howell hopes to market his beer one day.
Making this ancient drink is a time-consuming process, but Howell’s eyes shine when he talks about putting it all together.
“I start with Bashas’ popcorn,” he says with a straight face.
Most people act surprised. He explains that popcorn is perfect. He takes the kernels and sprouts them. After the sprouts have a long root, he dries everything, grinds it up and toasts it.
He boils the toasted ground sprouts and cools the mixture to make a mash. Then he slowly simmers the mash, before cooling it once more. After this second cooling, he strains the mash and adds all the herbs and boils the mixture once again. Once it cools, he lets it sit sit for 12 to 14 hours. Then he adds yeast, pours everything into three gallon bottles and allows it to ferment.
“It doesn’t store for a long time,” said Howell. “In fact, the Tarahumaran Indians stay up drinking their beer batch until it’s all gone.”
Howell poured small cups for the RCCAAS members, but with an alcohol content of five percent, no one got too tipsy.
“I have a theory that the medicine man of the tribe was the brew master,” said Howell.
His beer, along with the various recipes, made for a delicious celebration of the ancient history of Arizona.