Meet The Three Sisters who fed the first colonists

By Jean Redstone

We give our national thanks this month to acknowledge and celebrate the generosity of the Indians who helped the Pilgrims survive. School pageants will see students in colonial garb or feathered headdresses and that theme will play out in store displays and advertisements, in restaurant décor and menus.

cooking-3-sisters-corn-squash-beans-webYour own Thanksgiving table can honor the Native American contribution to the life of the colonies by highlighting a foundation of Indian agriculture, the Three Sisters. The Sisters are corn, beans and squash, and they were mainstays in the diet of most tribes. It is likely they taught the colonists their planting.

The Sisters’ story, simplified, is that Corn Girl grew straight and tall but her feet were constantly burned by the hot sun and she faced hunger when the weeds grew around her and took the food from the soil.

Sister Bean Girl was thin and weak but grew very fast and she had to lie in the mud and weeds, which hindered her growth.

Sister Squash Girl was quite short and heavy from her large leaves and had trouble getting enough food, too.

The sisters did not get along, each guarding their own independence. But they also did not thrive, spending their energy overcoming sun and weeds and lack of nutrients.

At last they decided to live together and thin, fast Bean climbed tall Corn to get the sun. Fat-leaved Squash vined around the soil where Bean and Corn were growing.

So Corn let Bean reach sunlight, which allowed Bean to enrich the soil around the sisters’ roots with nitrogen. Squash let her leaves spread, shading Corn and Bean’s roots and keeping the weeds away so the sisters could share the nutrients that bean, with plenty of sunlight, produced.

The Three Sisters planting method (and story) is such a common Indian practice, it is pictured on

the reverse of the 2009 U.S. Sacagawea Native American dollar coin

Here are three recipes featuring The Three Sisters. The versatile and hearty stew can be a vegetarian main dish option for Thanksgiving dinner, a first-course or appetizer for the holiday meal or a delicious way to serve leftover holiday meat the next day.  If you bake your pumpkin or squash a day ahead, the stew will come together readily. And if you’re not accustomed to dealing with winter squash, or just don’t have the time, see the shortcut following the recipe.


Adapted from the Iroquois White Corn Project

2 C hulled, cooked, white corn (about 3-4 ears if using fresh corn)
¼ C apple cider vinegar
½ C olive oil
1 red pepper, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 onions, minced
4 tomatoes, chopped
10-12 oz. black beans, soaked in water overnight (or used canned)
½ C fresh cilantro, minced
1 lb. summer squash or zucchini, cubed
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the beans, corn, and squash separately until tender but firm. The beans will need to be soaked overnight first and then simmered for 1 to 1 ½ hours.

In a large bowl, mix the remaining vegetables together while the corn, beans, and squash are still warm. In a separate bowl, mix vinegar, oil, cilantro, garlic, salt, and pepper. Pour marinade over vegetable mixture and gently toss. Let the salad marinate at least two hours before serving – overnight works best. Colorful in the salad bowl, this recipe makes up to 8 servings.


Adapted from the Manataka American Indian Council

1 lb. frozen whole kernel corn
1 lb. frozen green beans
4 C summer squash, or butternut squash, diced (about 1 lb)
1 pint regular or fat-free sour cream
2 eggs, beaten
4 Tbls butter or margarine, melted
1 C yellow cornmeal
1/2 C Jalapeno peppers, diced
1/2 C Monterey Jack cheese, diced (can use reduced fat kind)
Vegetable oil spray

In a large mixing bowl, mix sour cream and eggs together. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Coat a baking pan or casserole dish with vegetable oil spray and fill with mixture. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes until golden brown. Yield: l0 (1 C) servings.


Vegetarian, or add meat, this is a main dish option for Thanksgiving dinner

1 small sugar pumpkin or 1 large butternut squash (about 2 lbs)

2 Tbls olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium green or red bell pepper, cut into short narrow strips
14- to 16-oz. can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, with liquid
2 to 3 C cooked or canned (drained and rinsed) pink or pinto beans
2 C corn kernels (from 2 large or 3 medium ears, or frozen)
1 C homemade or canned vegetable stock, or water
1 or 2 small fresh hot chiles, seeded and minced, or one 4-oz. can chopped mild green chilies
2 tsps ground cumin
2 tsps chili powder or mesquite seasoning, or more, to taste
1 tsp dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ C minced fresh cilantro or parsley

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Remove stem from the pumpkin or squash and cut in half lengthwise. Cover with aluminum foil and place the halves, cut side up, in a foil-lined shallow baking pan. If your knives aren’t sharp enough, just wrap the pumpkin or squash in foil and bake it whole. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until you can pierce through with a knife, with a little resistance.
When cool enough to handle, scrape out the seeds and fibers (clean the seeds for roasting, if you’d like). Slice and peel, then cut into large dice.
Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and sauté over medium-low heat until translucent. Add the garlic and continue to sauté until the onion is golden. Add the pumpkin or squash and all the remaining ingredients except the last 2, and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, covered, until all the vegetables are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
If time allows, let the stew blend by standing 1 to 2 hours before serving, then heat through as needed. Just before serving, stir in the cilantro. The stew should be thick and very moist but not soupy. Add additional stock or water if needed. Adjust seasonings to your liking. Serve in bowls. Makes 8-10 servings.

Tip: Use the stew, with cubed or shredded holiday meat, as dinner or lunch the following days. Add the meat before reheating. Keeps well in refrigerator.

Shortcut: If you’re tight on time or don’t want to go through preparing pumpkin or squash, you can buy peeled, cut, raw butternut squash. At harvest time, you can often find prepared squash in the fresh produce department of supermarkets or natural foods stores.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


July 19, 2024, 3:09 pm
Clear sky
Clear sky
Apparent: 87°F