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Cooking with the Three Sisters: corn, squash and beans. Photo by Gus ZylstraCooking with
The Three Sisters

by Liz Clark

“Long ago people could only eat what they could grow or could forage,” explains Louis Farmer, chief of an eastern woodlands tribe—the Onondaga. “They couldn’t just go to the grocery store and buy whatever was on the shelf.”

Chief Farmer tells us a bit about the Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash. They are not just plants to the First Nations people. They are also spiritual symbols.

“So long as the Three Sisters are with us, we know we will never starve. The Creator sends them to us each year. We celebrate them now. We thank Him for the gift He gives us today and every day.”

Corn, beans, and squash are known as physical and spiritual sustainers of life for not only the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga and Tuscarora—member tribes of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy—but for many other tribal groups throughout the Americas.

The ancestry of corn is believed to date back 10,000 years. Beans came to us from Central America. As trade routes expanded to link the aboriginal peoples, long before European explorers arrived, beans were soon grown throughout North and South America. Squash is native to South America. Its name, askutasquash, comes from an Indian word meaning “eaten raw or uncooked.”

Inter-planting these vegetables has been referred to as “the genius of the Indians.” They increased their harvests by understanding the dependence of each vegetable upon the other for its optimum development. Before I knew better, I built up a mound of soil, planted all seeds in and around, all at once. My attempt at “companion planting” was unsuccessful.

Properly done, several kernels of corn are placed in a hole on level ground. As the small seedlings begin to grow, the soil is gradually mounded, creating a hill of about one foot high and two feet wide. The hills are arranged in rows about one step apart. Two or three weeks after the corn is planted, the bean seeds are planted in the hill and then, between the rows, the squash seeds.

Each of the Three Sisters has an important role to play. Sturdy corn stalks provide support for the bean stalks. A nitrogen-needy plant, the corn benefits from the bacterial colonies on the bean roots that capture nitrogen from the air. Only the strongest seedlings are permitted to flourish in and around the hill. As the lush foliage of the squash plant develops, they provide shade, moisture retention and weed control.

From Tyendinaga Mohawk territory near Belleville, Ontario, Anataras (Alan Brant) interprets, from the oral stories of Creation, the complex inter-dependence of Mankind and Nature as best could be remembered from the telling over the years. The Three Sisters may well have been spiritual sisters to twin boys whose birth took the life of their mother—Sky Woman’s daughter. The following is a small section of the legend, An Iroquoian Story of Creation:

“And they say that because this young woman had lost her life giving birth, that there was a great force emitting from her in all directions, this life-giving force, and as the soil touched her, that it was kind of like a chain reaction. This great life-giving force went in all directions. Wherever the soil was touching it, that life force went. And, they say, that right away, all of that vegetation started to grow all the more. So as…a gift to her daughter, the grandmother [Sky Woman]… because her daughter would never see the Sky World as the being that she was…she decided to give a piece of that Sky World to her daughter in her honour. So the daughter was all covered up now with this soil. And she was buried there. And all of the energy of that life-giving force was into the soil now and everything was growing very well. And the grandmother took some seeds and she put them on her daughter’s body. And she covered them up with the soil.

“Also, they say who came at that time, was the partner of this young woman and the father of these two boys [Teharonhiawako, the Holder of the Skies and Sawiskera, the Mischievous One]. He came and he gave the only gift that he could give. He brought water. And he put the water down on the top of the young woman where she was there. And they say her father also came. And he cleared the air around there. He was cleaning the air and throwing his fire sticks, purifying the air. And they say also, right after that, they say that the sun came. The sun was always there and he made it really warm that day. They say all of those things all combined with this newly supercharged soil and the seeds from the Sky World and the water and the warmth. They say that this new life began to spring up from her. And they say that the grandmother would teach the two young boys, as they grew to be older, about what had happened that day. And they say that what came up from where that young woman was laying in the ground, those seeds—the grandmother told these two boys—that their mother, even though she has died, she has changed from who she was, she is still providing for her two boys and she’s still giving food to them. And what grew up, they say, were corn and beans and the squash, which have become the staple of native foods in North America and Central America and South America. Those were the first things that grew in this new soil. And the grandmother also told these two young boys how to relate to these three things. She told them that these three things came from your mother’s body, just as these two young boys had done, they say, so that you refer to them as your three sisters. And they’re sisters because the seeds from these three beings can be replanted and they will grow again, so they’re considered to be female. So they are sisters these three things, the corn, the beans and the squash. And that’s where we get that term from.” ( — click: Mohawk Creation Story)

Planted together, eaten together and celebrated together, the Three Sisters are welcome “sustainers of life” at everyone’s harvest table.


1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
4 cups (about 1 lb/450 g) yellow summer squash, cut in 1 inch pieces
4 cups (about 2 medium) zucchini, cut in 1 inch pieces
4 cups (about 1 large) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed
3 cups (about 1 lb/450 g) green beans, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 cup (250 ml) fresh corn kernels or frozen
1 teaspoon (5 ml) dried thyme leaves or 2 teaspoons (10 ml) fresh
2 15-ounce (425 ml) cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 to 1 cup (125 to 250 ml) vegetable stock

Heat oil in large pot over medium heat.
Sauté onion, garlic and jalapeno pepper in oil 2 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently until onion is translucent. Stir in remaining ingredients.
With lid partially covering, cook over low heat 15 to 30 minutes. Add vegetable stock, as required. Stir occasionally until squash is tender and green beans are cooked. Salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 6 servings.


1 medium organically grown spaghetti squash
2 cups (500 ml) cooked small white beans, or the equivalent canned, drained and rinsed well.
1 cup (250 ml) cooked corn kernels
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30 ml) light olive, walnut or grapeseed oil
1/4 cup (60 ml) chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup (60 ml) chopped fresh basil
Sea salt to taste
1/2 cup (125 ml) white soy cheese finely grated.

Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds.
Place in steamer over boiling water and steam until flesh separates with a fork into pasta-like lengths, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile warm beans and corn with 2 tablespoons water in an uncovered deep-sided oven-proof serving dish. Mix bell pepper, parsley, basil and oil and toss together with bean and corn mixture. Add cooked squash, season with salt and toss gently. Garnish with grated soy cheese.
For additional flavour add 1 teaspoon (5ml) cumin or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (2.5 to 5 ml) curry powder. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

More recipes can be viewed online, Three Sisters Cookbook —A gift from the Oneida People


Squash can be divided into two main categories: Summer and Winter.

Summer squash varieties, picked at an early stage, have tender skin, white flesh and small seeds—all edible. Zucchini is the most widely grown summer squash and is most flavourful if harvested at 7" to 8". Interesting types to grow, other than the ubiquitous zucchini, are the Papaya Pear, Flying Saucer, and Eight Ball.

Winter squash takes much longer to mature and is great for long-term storage, lasting for months in a cool, dry space. The skin is hard, the flesh is usually yellow or orange and the large seeds are delicious when roasted.

To make it easier to slice a hard-skinned squash, first make a small slit in the squash, then microwave on full power for 2 minutes. After piercing once or twice, these squash can be boiled in the skin. Once halved and seeded they can be steam-baked in the oven or quickly cooked in the microwave after piercing the skin.

Sweet Dumpling and Carnival are colourful alternatives, but my favourite is the Turban. Placed in the centre of an outdoor harvest display, it looks especially exotic and keeps well in the cool autumn weather until it’s time for inclusion in a nutritious Three Sisters recipe.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 52, Summer 2006. Copyright Liz Clark.




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