Quinoa: The Story of a Cursed Crop

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Photo by net_efekt/FlickrCC


My Uncle John, a former professor of International Studies at the University of Denver, has the beard of someone who has spent significant time in both academia and Colorado. His mountain home gave me some of my first experiences with an idyllic, Edenic agriculture, which I still dream of whenever I park my car for more than a week. I remember visiting him on a road trip out to Oregon. Before dinner I went out to pick herbs, with grapes winding pleasantly about the fence and small dogs nervously scampering round my feet. Grown farther from his house, Uncle John's purple potatoes are a winter tradition.

The quinoa is a different story.

Uncle John's quinoa farm can be a vexing subject in the family. Fortunes don't fare well on the quinoa fields. After hearing stories of quinoa disaster for years, I called him the other week to ask about it. He called back and left a voicemail: "Incidentally, quinoa is not a past project; it's a present project," he said. "It's—ah—it's a disaster." Uncle John believes that White Mountain Farm is currently the only place growing the Andean grain in the United States for commercial use. Heat, hail, ice, and elk have kept him from a successful crop.

When I began to follow the trail back to the Andes, however, I found that quinoa's troubles began long before Colorado.

Quinoa has a reputation as a miracle food—ambrosia in little crunchy balls. It resembles a grain (though it is not technically a member of the grass family); grows in magnificent, bulky heads; and is the only staple crop that provides a full suite of amino acids. Acre for acre it provides 50 percent more energy than potatoes. The Andean Indians who first cultivated it call it "the mother grain." It has become widely available in the United States and has taken a place in the lexicon of the average American foodie, but that wasn't always the case.

Quinoa traveled a rough road from the Andes across the Rio Grande and into America. Some mystical hand seems to have thrown disaster in its path at every opportunity. The first American importers ran into so much trouble that one of them, Stephen Gorad, only got one satisfactory explanation for his unending quinoa tragedy: to a foreigner stealing food from its native soil, the "mother grain" of the Andes was cursed.

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Dave Thier

David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Republic, AOLNews, Wired.com, IGN.com, and South Magazine.

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