Monday, 19 August 2013

Indigenous Peoples’ Rights to Food and the Coca-Cola Industry

Coca Leaf (courtesy of Marcello Casal Jr, wikimedia commons)

I grew up drinking Coke. Now that I am more health conscious, I don’t drink Coca-Cola or any other drinks that have a long list of ingredients I can't identify, let alone pronounce. My interest in Indigenous peoples rights to food revealed another reason to turn down a can of coke. Coca-Cola production is part of a history that has empowered Western companies at the expense of Indigenous people and their rights to culturally important food and medicine. Let me explain.

Coca-Cola is a drink that entered the global market economy in 1886. At that time it was a drink made of cocaine, caffeine, cola nut extracts, and carbonated water. In 1903, there were some concerns raised about putting cocaine in soda. So, the cocaine in Coca-Cola was replaced by a de-cocainized flavouring ingredient. Both the cocaine and de-cocainized ingredient come from the leaves of a plant called Coca native to the South American Andes.

The coca plant is not the same as the drug cocaine. Coca is a plant Erythroxylum coca and cocaine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in this plant. To produce the drug called cocaine you need large amounts of coca leaves (e.g., 1 kilo of cocaine requires 2-3 hundred kilos of coca leaf). Cocaine production also requires many other harmful chemicals, including sulphuric acid, petrol, and caustic soda. Coca leaves contain a very small amount of the naturally-occurring alkaloid cocaine and this small amount does not induce toxicity or dependence, a 1978 scientific study reported.

Indigenous peoples of the Andes make use of coca leaves in their natural form, without chemical processing. For example, the Quechua, Aymara, and Kogi people use the coca leaf for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. I will never forget a skilled Bolivian healer who cured me with coca leaves. I had been suffering from a severe allergic reaction to my contact with alpaca fur (picture on the right). This allergy persisted for weeks and Western medicine was not helping. This healer, in La Paz Bolivia, taught me to chew the coca leaf to extract its natural anesthetic properties and to place the partially chewed leaf where my allergy was manifesting. Within a few minutes I felt relief and within a few days my allergic reaction was almost invisible. Unfortunately, stories such my own, which reveal coca as a powerful medicine, have been dwarfed by the global discourse equating the coca plant with chemically processed drugs.

One of the reasons we equate the coca plant with the drug cocaine is because the coca leaf has been classified as such in international conventions. In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Substances classified the coca leaf a Schedule I substance and since then its production, use, and trade have been under very strict regulation. For countries that signed onto this UN convention - such as Bolivia - this strict regulation has infiltrated all aspects of peoples’ coca use: from its sale and trade to Indigenous peoples' rights to chew coca leaves for medicinal purposes. Angela Heitzeneder (2010), scholar on cultural rights of Indigenous people in international law, described this UN convention as a global "intolerance toward the essential element of Andean traditional society and cosmology".

If this convention did not protect the right of Indigenous peoples to use coca, surely nobody else could use it either, right? Actually, no. The United Nation’s convention made sure that the famous soda pop Coca-Cola, and the companies involved in its production, were able to continue harvesting, using, and distributing coca.

The use of coca leaves for the production of the Coca-Cola flavouring agent is a permanent exception to the international prohibition against coca. The Stephan Company of Maywood in New Jersey imports around 175,000 kg of coca leaves from Trujillo, Peru each year to produce flavoured chemicals for Coke.

I have struggled to make sense of this. The cultural rights to use coca for ceremony and health were ignored in the 1961 UN convention on narcotics while the rights to produce a soda pop were protected?

If you remember, the Coca-Cola company buys de-cocainized extracts from coca leaves, a.k.a., "de-cocainized flavour essence", from the Stephan Company of Maywood in New Jersey. In the process of de-cocainizing, the Maywood company end up with cocaine by-product. Believe it or not, this U.S. company also has rights to sell this extracted cocaine to international medical practitioners to be used as an anesthetic.

It is hard to believe that U.S. companies have been profiting from the flavour and medicinal uses of coca while Indigenous People have been internationally denied the right to do so. This scenario is even harder to believe knowing that both the Coca-Cola company and western medical practitioners would not know the health properties of Coca without the knowledge and skills of Indigenous people.

In 2011 the Bolivian President Evo Morales challenged what has been called a “historical error and violation of Indigenous rights” by Martin Jelsm, the director of The Transnational Institute’s Drugs and Democracy program. Evo Morales withdrew from the 1961 UN convention in part because of his opposition to the convention’s obligation that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished”. Just this year, Bolivia celebrated their re-entry into the UN convention with an exception made to respect Bolivian peoples’ coca chewing practices.

With the exception of Bolivia’s small victory, Indigenous peoples rights to use and benefit from a cultural plant are still being infringed upon. At the same time large U.S. companies are encouraged to use, distribute, and make towering profits from the coca industry. I believe this disparity is perhaps the most powerful reason to turn down a can of Coca-Cola. In the meantime, I’ll wait for Bolivia’s Coca-Colla to hit Canadian markets. 

Read more:
Heitzeneder, A. 2010. The Coca-leaf: Miracle good or social menace? Masters Thesis, Universitat wien, accessed at:

Monday, 5 August 2013

Corn Smut, Cuitlacoche or Mexican Truffle, is there a difference?

Courtesy of Stu Spivak, wikimedia commons

On August 9th the world will celebrate the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. I am celebrating early and paying my deep respects to the foods Indigenous farmers developed. One of those foods is a fungus called Cuitlacoche. 

If you have eaten in Mexico, you may have tried this tasty fungus creeping out of the ears of corn. Cuitlacoche (Ustilago maydis), is pronounced cuitla-KO-che or Huitlacoche (with a silent H). The Spanish name Cuitacoche is adapted from a Nahuatl name and my internet searches tell me the closest literal English translation for this word might be something like "Sleeping/Hibernating Dirt/Excrement". 

What's in a name?  

One reason why this Nahuatl name is important is because it tells us about this fungus's cultural roots. Nahuatl is the language of Nahua peoples (also known as Aztec people) whose speakers reside mainly in communities of Central Mexico.The Nahua were likely one of the first peoples to describe the fungus Cuitlacoche. 

I must disclose, the first time I tried Cuitlacoche was in Washington D.C., not in Mexico. Like many big cities, the D.C. foodscape is diverse and finding a Cuitlacoche quesadilla was surprisingly easy. All I had to do was take a trip to Adams Morgan and there I was quickly drawn into a quaint Mexican restaurant adorned with beautiful posters of Puebla and Pozole. When I saw Cuitlacoche quesadillas on the menu, I took the plunge. While explaining that Cuitlacoche has a strong flavour, the owner politely tried to sway my decision to the tacos or the tortas mexicanas. I insisted on the Cuitlacoche. 

Courtesy of Cuauhtemoc Ramirez, wikimedia commons 

I had a tecate and talked to the owner about Colima, a small state in Mexico where I lived about 10 years ago. Shortly into our conversation, I was presented with Cuitlacoche fungus in between two handmade corn tortillas. If I didn't look close enough I could have mistaken it for black refried beans. Upon close inspection I noticed tiny yellow corn kernels mixed into a dark purple mash called Cuitlacoche. 

I loved it, it had a hearty, earthy taste, it was not too overpowering, and it went surprisingly well with salsa and guacamole. 

As I ate, I wondered if my Cuitlacoche was grown locally or was shipped from Mexico. Although it may come as a surprise, Cuitlacoche is grown in the U.S. by many farmers, but not on purpose. Cuitlachoche in the U.S. is considered a disease called Corn Smut. Because Corn Smut is a U.S. pest, non-Indigenous farmers there spend their time thinking about killing, not cooking, this fungus. I felt safe to say the fungus on my plate in Washington D.C. was imported.

Cuitlacoche in a Oaxaca supermarket, wikimedia commons

Out of curiosity, I asked the owner where he gets his Cuitlacoche. "You can get anything in D.C.", he answered, looking shocked that I didn't know this fact. In Mexico, I had seen this fungus sold fresh, but he told me in D.C. it comes packaged, conveniently, in a can. This explains why you can order Cuitlacoche in many places and in many different dishes, including soups, crepes, and even fondues. 

As foodies transform Indigenous food recipes, their food names can change. Food enthusiasts are looking for an English name, beyond Corn Smut, to describe Cuitlacoche. Mexican Truffle and Aztec Caviar have been suggested. I agree with foodies that the name Corn Smut does not sound appetizing, but what is wrong with the Nahuatl name? Why are we searching for names that detach foods from their Indigenous roots? 

My vote is to keep the name Cuitlacoche. When Cuitlacoche becomes the Mexican Truffle we lose track of this fungus's history. The name Cuitlacoche links us to a people and a rich history of food tradtions. The name Mexican Truffle, like the label "Mexican Cuisine", tells us nothing about the diversity of foods and peoples within a region. The name Aztec Caviar is more culturally-descriptive. But the name Aztec Caviar still removes the Nahualt lanuage from the picture. 

There is something to be said for using an Indigenous word when ordering a food. When I ask for a Cuitlacoche quesadilla I articulate diversity using different sounds. When I hear these unique sounds, like "cui" or "tla", I am eager to learn the stories behind them. When I ask for Aztec Caviar, I can easily mistake this name for a quirky English label and not give a second thought to its first farmers

When I eat, whether in a city or around a fire far from urban life, I remember Indigenous farmers. I remember the foods their ancestors developed and I respect the foods Indigenous farmers produce for us today. Without Indigenous peoples, none of us new-age foodies know about Cuitlacoche. Let's celebrate the World's Indigenous Peoples and call Indigenous foods by their first names. 

Does anyone have a story about the Nahuatl word Cuitlacoche or about how this fungus is prepared by Nahua and other Indigenous peoples? If so, please share it in the comments section below. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Finding Wild Mushrooms: Foraging in Lee County, Alabama

Today we hear from Brian Folt. Inspired by tips on this blog, he took a foray close to his home in Alabama and stumbled upon Cinnabar and Smooth Chanterelles. He describes the experience below while providing many descriptive tips for those of us beginning to forage.  

Brian Folt is a Ph.D. student at Auburn University, where he studies amphibian and reptile ecology. Recently he has also become interested in organic farming and sustainable eating. Here he shares his recent experiences foraging and cooking local edible mushrooms from Lee County, Alabama. All photographs in the post are Brian’s, and if you have questions or comments please leave them in the comments section at the end of the post.

Admittedly, I have little experience foraging for mushrooms. While attending college at Ohio University in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, I was fortunate to stumble upon morels (Morchella sp.) on a few occasions. These experiences were sparse over the years, and usually only incidentally while out searching for vertebrate wildlife.

In recent years, I have since moved to Auburn, Alabama, and I have yet to make a concerted effort to forage for edible mushrooms in the area. Auburn sits at the southwestern terminus of the Piedmont physiographic province, just above the Coastal Plain. Word of the mouth around here suggests that morels are much less common here relative to other areas of Appalachia. However, my friend Chris Matechik recently found morels in the Auburn City limits, and my interest on the subject was slightly revived. We had discussed going out mushroom hunting together a number of times over beers, but neither of us had taken the initiative to coordinate the effort. (Such is the case with the vast majority of plans hatched from alcohol.)

Chris Matechick foraging around Auburn 
Then I caught wind that chanterelles are fruiting in abundance just a few miles away near Athens, Georgia. We have been enjoying a wet summer in the Auburn area as well, and, given Sean’s nice blog post, I figured conditions might be favorable for finding a formidable mushroom haul around these parts. So, I sent Matechek a message and tried to rally a tag-team mushroom hunting mission. Chris is a tremendous natural historian who also maintains interests in foraging for plants and mushrooms. Whenever I get out into the field with him, I always enjoy his wide base of knowledge, and I was hoping to lean on and learn from his mushroom identification skills.

With Sean’s tips in mind, Chris and I visited a tract of secondary forest characterized by mixed deciduous and evergreen tree species, located within spitting distance of our homes. Immediately upon arrival we hit pay dirt when Chris spotted an aggregation of Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) poking their caps up through the odd pine needle. He explained to me that this species can at least partially be identified by its red coloration and decurrent gills beneath the cap that transition smoothly onto the stem. As I understand it, these gills are characterized as ‘false gills’, because these tissues are derived from the same tissues as the cap (but perhaps others have more correct or thorough understanding of this and can comment below).  It also seems this red coloration may result from the presence of carotenoid compounds.

Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus)
Shortly thereafter we continued through the forest, following a gently worn trail through a riparian zone until transitioning into a fairly open hillside pine forest. At this point, we were excited to note the odd Smooth Chanterelle (Cantharellus lateritius)! And as Chris told me, when you find one of these mushrooms, keep a keen eye out for more! At our site, these mushrooms were patchily distributed throughout the forest in small aggregations of 5–10 fruiting bodies, and over the course of twenty minutes we both collected a nice haul. Unlike the tastier Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), the Smooth Chanterelle lacks definitive gills and has a smooth surface under the caps. We selected the fresh, clean fruiting bodies and removed them by clipping at the stem base with a pocket knife. A small brush can be used to gently detach any dirt that may be on the ‘shroom. We avoided older, decaying individuals, in hopes that they would reproduce and continue the population at this site.

Chris and I returned to our respective homes, and, after an afternoon siesta, we reconvened at my place to cook up our catch. We sautéed the mushrooms in olive oil along with white onions and garlic, and further cooked them in vegetable stock and cream. We mixed this sauce into cooked spaghetti, adding lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and added a few tomato slices for more substance. The cream and vegetable stock were organic, and the tomatoes were organically grown from my garden. Our recipe was loosely adapted from here. I will say the lemon juice was a choice addition, offering a welcomed zing to the flavor, but the mushrooms themselves really shined throughout the meal, providing a veritable feast of flavor and texture to my tongue.

We enjoyed this fine meal with a bottle of Chris’ home-made muscadine wine, a beverage produced from three local wild graps: Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis munsonia, and Vitus volpes.

After using about half our catch in the above pasta dish, we dried the remaining mushrooms in a dehydrator and are saving them for a future meal.

In conclusion, this exercise was an extremely fun and fruitful use of my Saturday afternoon. I learned much about the natural history of the regional fungi fauna, particularly those delectable edibles, and I hope to expand on this base with more experiences in the future. In particular, I am told that Cinnabar Chanterelles fruit during late summer and fall, so I am optimistic to cross paths with this species again here shortly. Once again, thanks are also deserved to Sean Sterrett, whose recent post inspired me to initiate our search, and Olivia Sylvester for maintaining this fascinating blog.