Imagine you are an astronaut on a space mission. Your ration of Tang, the fake orange juice, and your squeeze-tube meals have ran out because you were hungrier on this trip than you thought. What do you do? You break out your emergency stash of amaranth seeds.
Well, this might just be a curious daydream for space travel lovers. However, it is a real fact that the US astronauts carry amaranth seeds on board of their missions. It is lightweight and has a long shelf life, useful attributes for space travel, but most important of all; this ancient grain, with its origin in Mexico, is one of the world’s few complete foods.
The indigenous people of Mexico appreciated this grain more than corn, and worshipped it as a special gift of nature. For their ceremonial tributes to the amaranth grain, huautli in the nahuatl language, they sculptured figurines out of the seeds, and at the end of the rituals they broke them into small pieces and passed them around to the worshipers. Eating the seeds symbolized the assurance for a successful new harvest.
The newly arrived Spanish Catholic clergy, observing this, thought their ritual of Holy Communion was being mocked, consequently, they angrily outlawed the cultivation of amaranth under penalty of death. Removing one of the most nutritious grains from the indigenous diet caused a massive epidemic of malnutrition and starvation. For centuries amaranth was not cultivated as a crop in Mexico because of this taboo, yet interestingly, the plant was taken to nearly every corner of the world by early explorers. Even today it is still appreciated around the globe for its health properties, beauty and color.
Amaranth is a very resilient plant and almost impossible to wipe out, with each flower producing about 60,000 seeds. The plant needs very little water and will grow in almost any soil without care. With present renewed awareness of its nutritional benefits, commercial cultivation is beginning to be developed again in Mexico, primarily in the state of Puebla, where it originated more than 7,000 years ago.
To find out what happens to the seeds once they are harvested, 15 curious persons from San Miguel de Allende and Querétaro recently traveled to a small village near San Juan del Rio in the state of Hidalgo. Arriving at the gate of the amaranth processing plant, we were greeted by a wildly waving man, dressed in blue hospital scrubs, Dr. Benito Manrique de Lara, the director and mastermind of this unique operation.Twenty-six years ago, after working for many years in India and Europe, Benito (as he is generally referred to and a native of Columbia) found himself in the middle of nowhere in Mexico with an offer (more like a challenge) to restore an amaranth processing plant that had fallen into ruins.
The nearby village had no water, electricity or roads. The houses were made of stones and any found materials and its inhabitants, families left behind by the nearby ex-hacienda after the revolution, were mostly illiterate. These were the only people Benito had close by to help him, unless he would recruit more skilled people from within several hours of commuting. Benito decided make a primary investment in human capital and began working with what he had on hand, and then bringing the amaranth plant back to life. The villagers, with Benito’s encouragement, literally build a new life for themselves. Their hamlet soon had water, electricity and roads. Once the basic infrastructure was in place, they began simultaneously to build the factory and continued work on their village.
Today they have a church, school, ball courts, a health care center, a daycare center, a zócalo for fiestas, a social center and a media room with access to computers. Their homes are now solid constructions with enough yards and greenery around to grow vegetables and keep chickens, burros and cows. The children in the village, thanks to their amaranth formulas and fresh foods, have zero malnutrition, one of the very few rural places in Mexico able to claim so.
The progress of the village went hand in hand with the construction and development of the factory. Again, this was all done with the original village population. Some machinery for processing the amaranth was either too expensive or did not exist and Benito challenged his crew to come up with designs for the needed equipment. Experimenting with little toy models at first eventually resulted in the construction of very sophisticated and highly functional huge machinery.
Covered in blue from head-to-toe for the tour.
After we had donned blue coats, hats, facemasks and booties and walked though a wind chamber, we finally got to see the operation. We were struck by how spotless the building was, you could practically eat off the floor!
Benito explaining the specialized machinery in the amaranth factory.
Benito explained all the different machinery to us and what they do. Some amaranth seeds get popped, literally like popcorn, which are then made into the candy called alegría.
Amaranth seed cakes (Alegria)
Other seeds go through a process where the protein is separated from the seeds, mixed with other ingredients and made into baby formulas and different flavored atoles. All products are developed in house in their custom laboratory and they leave the plant fully packaged ready for sale.
Baby formula created with amaranth seeds.
Just when we thought we could not get any more impressed, all of our mouths dropped open in disbelief when Benito told us that all of the 70 employees rotate their position in the plant everyday! They all know how to do every task, including lab and office work.
Meticulously kept seed records.
The cooks in the village were very gracious and prepared lunch for us with an amazing array of flavorful dishes. Each cook proudly told us what she had made from the fresh vegetables, chickens, beans and corn. There were handmade tortillas, tamales, chilaquiles, amaranth greens, salsas, flautas, crisp cabbage salad and lots of fresh ranch eggs, just to mention a few.
Beans with lettuce and egg garnish
And if that was not enough, they sent us off with a big goodie bag with popped amaranth (great for breakfast cereal), atoles (comforting on cool mornings), and amaranth marzipan.
What an amazing experience. My account is by far only a rough sketch of our experience as the details could nearly fill a book. I hope that you get a glimpse of what can be done with dedication, determination and trust in the human capacity to learn. Benito is my hero!
If you are interested in joining me for another trip to Utopia, please contact me.
Hiding behind an amaranth plant in Chicago.
This amazing amaranth grew in Rick Bayless' Chicago garden. The following year there was amaranth growing within blocks of his garden. A testimony to the plants hardiness; the seeds withstood the brutal Chicago winter.
Dear Amaranth Friends,
I know you all remember Dr. Benito Manrique de Lara, the ebullient and enthusiastic founder of the utopian amaranth village we visited. With great sadness I was told by my friend Ada, my initial connection to Benito, that he died yesterday of a heart attack in his sleep. He was only 54 years old but he showed us in his short life time that a peaceful, respectful and productive existence among human beings is possible.
My heart goes out to all the people in the village of Huixcazdha which Benito with his faith and trust in their capabilities lifted from extreme poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition to a meaningful, healthy and dignified existence. They all have lost their guide and father to a better life.
I hope that Benito's work will be able to continue. I will keep you informed with any news.
I do not have all of the tour peoples email, please pass on the information to friends you knew were on the tour.
I made these amaranth green tacos today for Benito, they were seasoned with the salt of my tears.
Hugs to you all,
I am so sorry to hear this very heartbreaking news. I am currently in the Bahamas and did not get your message immediately. What an amazing man, I can’t believe he is gone and at such a young age. (54) He lived life to the fullest and demanded everyone around him do the same. What a great spirit - thank you for bringing him into my life through the amaranth tour.
Abrazos my friend,