Corn growing in the sun

“If it grows together, it goes together.” This is the wisdom passed to me by my grandfather when we were harvesting squash, green beans, and tomatoes from his garden over 20 years ago (probably even 30 years ago, actually, but who’s counting!).

He was referring to the idea that produce that matures at the same time is suited for consumption at the same time. There are plenty of examples of this throughout cuisine: tomato and basil, corn and zucchini, peaches and berries, and on and on. It wasn’t until I started reading about the indigenous people of the Americas that I realized how true this idea is.Sprout

I first read about the Three-Sisters in “1491,” by Charles Mann, where he discusses the populations of north and south America before the European invasion. It’s a fascinating book that explores the realities of indigenous communities as technologically advanced stewards of their environments. One of the agricultural concepts that Mann talks about is the Milpa: an acre or more in which the three-sister crops are planted and harvested. The three sisters are beans, squash, and corn.

The Milpa is an ancient agricultural system in which the three crops not only grow together, but also support each through the stages of growth, and even eventually after harvest. The corn grows tall and becomes a pole for the bean vine to climb. The squash creates ground cover and protects the delicate stems of the pole beans. The three-sisters garden does not require any fallow, or rest, season for the soil to recoup nutrients because the nutrients from each piece of the trio are continually replenished by the combination itself.3 Sisters crops

When we consume beans and corn together, they provide the building blocks for amino acids that our bodies do not produce, creating a complete protein. Add the fiber and micronutrients from squash and the companion crops often planted at the edge of the Milpa, like chiles, tomatoes, and melon, and you have a good start at a healthy diet.

You can see the Milpa reflected in many everyday dishes, like soups, savory pies, veggie tacos,a nd these Black Bean-Stuffed Zucchini. In my home, I use the squash and corn to make calabacita—a squash-rich sauté with corn, tomatoes, and peppers. My family also loves black beans in Belizian-style beans and rice, cooked with creamy coconut milk.

Inspired to grow my own tiny three-sisters garden, I cleared my entire veggie plot, maybe 350 square feet. I decided on a mixed seed packet of summer squash, an open pollinator variety of corn, and an heirloom variety of black beans. I also threw in a few melons and some habanero chile seeds I found in my bag of seed packets. After some research, I decided to plant all three seeds on one mound for the lowest tech possible option.

Squash plantsAfter a few weeks, the beans were outpacing the corn, so I added a few poles for support and away we went. You see that big celery in the back? It came up on its own as a volunteer veggie after the great snowstorm of 2021. I can’t deny a volunteer, so I kept it. Volunteer plants are those that grow without any input from the gardener. They can be from old gardens, sneak under the fence from next door, or from seeds that are left by birds or other animals.

It was a weird year for weather in San Antonio, Texas, and we got about triple our regular rain falls in the early summer. The Milpa went crazy, and the zucchini started to produce, but with continued rain, it began to rot before the corn was mature. The black beans did great, and I got a fairly good crop, about 4 pounds of black beans all season with more flowers on the vine at this very moment.

3 sisters garden in Hyde Park, NYThe corn, however, struggled. The often-torrential rain combined with the rotting ground cover created a strange situation. The corn grew and produced some nice ears. Most grew tassels, but they ultimately resulted in runty, dry ears.

I am pretty pleased with the overall output of my first mini-Milpa, and I am motivated try again this coming summer, when I will hope for less rain and better results. In the meantime, my colleagues in Hyde Park are working with their students to grow the three sisters in their edible classroom gardens, so the tradition is alive at the CIA!


Chef Lilla Bernal

Chef Lilla Bernal is an associate professor at our Texas campus, where she has the great and wonderful privilege of teaching baking and pastry courses to first and second semester students. She is a Certified Master Baker and Certified Hospitality Educator. Previously, Chef Bernal was a menu consultant at Victoria House Resort and The Black Orchid in San Pedro, Belize. She was one of the original vendors at the Pearl Farmer’s Market, and the pastry chef at Biga on the Banks, in San Antonio, TX. Her experience also includes nutrition education coordinator with the San Antonio Food Bank and a variety of pastry chef and baker jobs in Central America, Mexico, and the great state of Texas.  

CIA FOODIES


Three Sisters: If It Grows Together, It Goes Together

Corn growing in the sun
“If it grows together, it goes together.” This is the wisdom passed to me by my grandfather when we were harvesting squash, green beans, and tomatoes from his garden over 20 years ago (probably even 30 years ago, actually, but who’s counting!). He was referring to the idea that produce that matures at the same time is suited for consumption at the same time. There are plenty of examples of this throughout cuisine: tomato and basil, corn and zucchini, peaches and berries, and on and on. It wasn’t until I started reading about the indigenous people of the Americas that I realized how true this idea is.Sprout I first read about the Three-Sisters in “1491,” by Charles Mann, where he discusses the populations of north and south America before the European invasion. It’s a fascinating book that explores the realities of indigenous communities as technologically advanced stewards of their environments. One of the agricultural concepts that Mann talks about is the Milpa: an acre or more in which the three-sister crops are planted and harvested. The three sisters are beans, squash, and corn. The Milpa is an ancient agricultural system in which the three crops not only grow together, but also support each through the stages of growth, and even eventually after harvest. The corn grows tall and becomes a pole for the bean vine to climb. The squash creates ground cover and protects the delicate stems of the pole beans. The three-sisters garden does not require any fallow, or rest, season for the soil to recoup nutrients because the nutrients from each piece of the trio are continually replenished by the combination itself.3 Sisters crops When we consume beans and corn together, they provide the building blocks for amino acids that our bodies do not produce, creating a complete protein. Add the fiber and micronutrients from squash and the companion crops often planted at the edge of the Milpa, like chiles, tomatoes, and melon, and you have a good start at a healthy diet. You can see the Milpa reflected in many everyday dishes, like soups, savory pies, veggie tacos,a nd these Black Bean-Stuffed Zucchini. In my home, I use the squash and corn to make calabacita—a squash-rich sauté with corn, tomatoes, and peppers. My family also loves black beans in Belizian-style beans and rice, cooked with creamy coconut milk. Inspired to grow my own tiny three-sisters garden, I cleared my entire veggie plot, maybe 350 square feet. I decided on a mixed seed packet of summer squash, an open pollinator variety of corn, and an heirloom variety of black beans. I also threw in a few melons and some habanero chile seeds I found in my bag of seed packets. After some research, I decided to plant all three seeds on one mound for the lowest tech possible option. Squash plantsAfter a few weeks, the beans were outpacing the corn, so I added a few poles for support and away we went. You see that big celery in the back? It came up on its own as a volunteer veggie after the great snowstorm of 2021. I can’t deny a volunteer, so I kept it. Volunteer plants are those that grow without any input from the gardener. They can be from old gardens, sneak under the fence from next door, or from seeds that are left by birds or other animals. It was a weird year for weather in San Antonio, Texas, and we got about triple our regular rain falls in the early summer. The Milpa went crazy, and the zucchini started to produce, but with continued rain, it began to rot before the corn was mature. The black beans did great, and I got a fairly good crop, about 4 pounds of black beans all season with more flowers on the vine at this very moment. 3 sisters garden in Hyde Park, NYThe corn, however, struggled. The often-torrential rain combined with the rotting ground cover created a strange situation. The corn grew and produced some nice ears. Most grew tassels, but they ultimately resulted in runty, dry ears. I am pretty pleased with the overall output of my first mini-Milpa, and I am motivated try again this coming summer, when I will hope for less rain and better results. In the meantime, my colleagues in Hyde Park are working with their students to grow the three sisters in their edible classroom gardens, so the tradition is alive at the CIA!
Chef Lilla Bernal Chef Lilla Bernal is an associate professor at our Texas campus, where she has the great and wonderful privilege of teaching baking and pastry courses to first and second semester students. She is a Certified Master Baker and Certified Hospitality Educator. Previously, Chef Bernal was a menu consultant at Victoria House Resort and The Black Orchid in San Pedro, Belize. She was one of the original vendors at the Pearl Farmer’s Market, and the pastry chef at Biga on the Banks, in San Antonio, TX. Her experience also includes nutrition education coordinator with the San Antonio Food Bank and a variety of pastry chef and baker jobs in Central America, Mexico, and the great state of Texas.  

Copyright © 2022 The Culinary Institute of America

Leave a Comment