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 foodâambrosia 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.
The early setbacks were practical and expected. Throughout South America, quinoa had a reputation as an Indian food, unsophisticated trash scorned by the middle class in Lima and Quito. As a result, the quinoa economy was ill-equipped for any kind of export, existing in pockets of subsistence farmers who mostly traded among themselves. Gorad traveled to Chilean markets, trying to get what he could. He was able to find a larger grower in Southern Chile who had been sponsored by the Allende government to research quinoa, but not much else. Eventually, some friends of his were able to arrange a 50-pound bag of grain to be shipped to America.
Things seemed to be going well in the late seventies. Gorad met up with Don McKinley, a friend who had studied with Ichazo, and they took their new grain to health-food distributors, doing demonstrations for the managers. They got an overwhelmingly positive response. Of course, they had no idea what to do next.
Years passed before McKinley found a third member of Team Quinoa, an idealistic history Ph.D. from the University of Denver who was the son of a potato farmer. David Cusack was the head of a growing organization called Sierra Blanca in Colorado's San Luis Valley. If import was so hard, they thought, then they could grow the Andean crop in the high altitudes of the Rockies. Together they formed Quinoa Corporation, in 1983.
Gorad was in Chile at the time, and they asked him to ship some quinoa up north. They planted it, but after a year had nothing but weeds. As it turned out, they had grain quinoa, not seed. Quinoa is coated with a bitter substance called saponin, which must be washed off before it can be eaten. But once it has been washed off, it can't be planted.