Story and Photography By Amy Crowell
Everything we eat is related to something that was once wild. Our ancestors began collecting, domesticating and cultivating wild foods nearly 10,000 years ago, and over time our foods changed and began to look quite different from their predecessors. But many wild ancestors of our modern-day crops still grow, unassumingly and abundantly, in vacant lots and on street corners all over the world. And we can still eat them!
Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.) is one of the wild edibles that, in its cultivated form, is more affectionately known as amaranth, a grain that was once one of the most important food sources of indigenous Central and South Americans. You can find this sturdy weed popping out of just about every sidewalk crack in Austin. It’s especially easy to find in areas where soil has been disturbed on roadsides, fence lines or the edge of a garden.
Amaranth is native to Central America, where it was domesticated over 8,500 years
ago. Before the arrival of the Spanish, Native Americans cultivated it for its seed grain. In fact, amaranth was just as valuable to the Aztecs as corn. When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in the early 1500s, he realized the economic and cultural importance of amaranth and swiftly ordered the destruction of granaries and fields filled with the crop and made growing it a crime. As a result, the grain was almost forgotten as a major food source, though it continued to be cultivated in isolated areas of Central and South America. Today, amaranth is once again being grown on farms throughout the world and is gaining popularity as one of the most nutritious grains under cultivation.
In Texas, there are more than 20 species of wild amaranth. The plant can grow up to several feet tall and has alternating oval-shaped leaves and multiple spiked-flower clusters at the top. When the amaranth goes to seed, the clusters often droop to one side because they are loaded with tiny, black seeds ready to plant themselves. Leaves are usually green, and some species have red-tinted or purple leaves.
The leaves of the amaranth plant contain high amounts of vitamins C and A, as well as calcium and iron, and can be eaten either raw or cooked like any other green. As the plant ages, though, the leaves become fibrous and bitter, so choose leaves from young plants.
Amaranth’s biggest contribution to our health, and to that of early Americans, is its grain or seed. Packed with nutrients, amaranth seeds contain more protein than rice, corn or wheat, and a high amount of the amino acid lysine—making it a more complete protein. To harvest the seeds, cut the seed heads from the plant in late summer or fall, dry them and then rub them gently over a bowl or pan to release the
tiny, black seeds. To winnow out, or remove, the chaff, toss the seeds in a light breeze or air current. You can also screen out the seeds, but I recommend doing some research on threshing and winnowing grain before beginning. Once the seeds are separated, prepare amaranth like most grains: pop it like popcorn, boil it like rice or roast it in the oven on low heat until it begins to sizzle. Of course, it will take many seed heads to gather enough grain for a meal, but amaranth truly does grow in just about every nook and cranny in Austin!