Why Rep. AOC’s Plea to Grow Yucca, Not “Colonialist Cauliflower” in Bronx Green-Spaces Should Be Reconsidered

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), often referred to affectionately by her fans (and detractors alike) as “AOC”, is always advocating for social change and the betterment of society. Of course, not everyone might agree with her solutions to identified issues, but having a discussion is a vital start for any change.

And, while some of her efforts are based in solid research on legitimate issues, recently, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made an informal video as she strolled her Congressional District, live-narrating into her cell phone about colonialism and cauliflower.


nrkbeta Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez @ SXSW 2019 New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Image Credit: Ståle Grut / NRKbeta

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Image Credit: Ståle Grut / NRKbeta

“…when someone says that it’s ‘too hard’ to do a green space that grows Yucca instead of, I don’t know, cauliflower or something — what you’re doing is that you’re taking a colonial approach to environmentalism…” were Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s exact words.

She further explains that social causes work best when relevant, framed within a cultural context. While environmental awareness is essential, and bringing fresh green food choices to urban “Food Deserts” commendable, this statement does not reflect an idea set based in fact.

The All-Nite Images A Day In New York-8th November 2014 Bronx: New Roots Community Garden Image Credit: otto yamamoto

Bronx: New Roots Community Garden
Image Credit: otto yamamoto

Most readers don’t know much about growing yucca. Or even what yucca is, exactly. So, let’s start there. Yucca is a root, also known as Cassava. This is where Tapioca comes from. Manihot esculenta is also referred to as manioc, yuca, macaxeira, mandioca, and aipim.

Cassava seems to originate in west-central Brazil, and has been eaten as a staple food crop by Native Americans for generations, its use stretching back into the distant past, thousands and thousands of years.

"Cassava" Image Credit: Farkomer

Image Credit: Farkomer

Now, it is true that the conquering Spaniards shunned Cassava (and maize) as lacking substantial nutrition. Even so, the colonial-era occupiers established cassava plantations and worldwide trade that brought Yucca to Africa, by Portuguese traders, in the sixteenth century, and shortly thereafter, into Asia as well, where it is extensively cultivated to this day. Of course, to think that cassava and colonialism have nothing in common is to ignore history.

However, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not an agricultural specialist, and none of this is obvious or straightforward. Without some investigating, none of us would be aware of this. Presently, Nigeria is the world’s largest producer, annually growing more than 250 million tons of the root. Cassava is a tropical plant, drought-tolerant and able to thrive on even relatively poorer soils.

Freshly Cut Cassava Root Manihot esculenta, Euphorbiaceae Image Credit: Ikhlasul Amal

Freshly Cut Cassava Root
Manihot esculenta, Euphorbiaceae
Image Credit: Ikhlasul Amal

Yucca leaves are high in protein and antioxidants, its root mostly starch. According to WikiPedia, Cassava is a, “…highly-productive crop when considering food calories produced per unit land area, per unit of time.

Significantly higher than other staple crops, cassava can produce food calories at rates exceeding 250 kcal/hectare/day, as compared with 176 for rice, 110 for wheat and 200 for maize.”

Why not grow cassava in the Bronx, and throughout NYC and its surrounding NJ suburbs, then? It’s not quite that it’s “too hard”, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggests.

The plant requires about eight months of warm weather, and even in our best years, the New York City region falls miserably short on required warm-weather days. (https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_maes.pdf) Further, while some varieties of yucca are indeed frost tolerant, heavy frosts will damage most.

Then, there’s cauliflower.

'Green Italian Cauliflower" Image Credit: Ben Dalton

‘Green Italian (Romanesco) Cauliflower”
(This variety is all about crazy fractals!) Image Credit: Ben Dalton

I remember as a child liking it far more than broccoli, considering it a tastier, albeit paler, version of the well-disdained vegetable. (In fact, cauliflower now comes in a rainbow of colors, all high in phytochemical antioxidants!) Brassica oleracea, as it’s known, is a member of the genus, Brassica.

Brassica oleracea has been bred into a number of veggies we all know and love (or hate), including broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, and kale. According to Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist living in the first century, cauliflower was the most tasty cabbage-type plant.

Image Credit: Cherster Santos

Image Credit: Cherster Santos

Ibn al-‘Awwam and Ibn al-Baitarhails, noted botanists hailing from the Arabic world, in the thirteenth century wrote that cauliflower’s origin was the island-kingdom of Cypress. Strangely, for a vegetable considered so tasty and fine, cauliflower only made its way into French cuisine in the 1600s, and later moved into Italy, and India in the early 1800s.

"Cauliflower" Image Credit: WordRidden

Image Credit: WordRidden

Isothiocyanates and glucosinolates, other phytochemicals, are currently being investigated for efficacy in fighting disease. Cauliflower is also high in potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin C, Magnesium, and has a high amount of protein as well.

Would anyone suggest that collard greens are not a legitimate cultural food of oppressed peoples? Collards are a close cousin of cauliflower, and neither plant seems to have any recorded history of being involved in mass farming on plantations, while cassava was farmed extensively in Spanish colonies and traded worldwide.

Collards Image Credit: Steven Jackson Photography

Image Credit: Steven Jackson Photography

Perhaps its the delicate nature of collards and cauliflower that kept these plants from becoming high-profit options for plantations and agricultural trade ventures? It seems likely.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should reconsider her position on yucca, cauliflower, and Bronx green spaces, although it seems, in all fairness, that she was only musing aloud. Is collard greens a “colonialist” food?

I think (we can all agree that) African-Americans have owned this plant, and really made it their own, culturally, regardless of whether it was first introduced to the diet of slave ancestors by their oppressors. The same is true of cauliflower and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. Could we say that Aloo Gobi, the famed Indian Cauliflower and potato recipe, is colonialist?

"Aloo Gobi" Image Credit: Monali.mishra

“Aloo Gobi”
Image Credit: Monali.mishra

And, what of Nigerian yucca farming in the present day? Although wildly successfully, is this enterprise tainted by a history of colonialism? What about the scrumptious Nigerian Cassava Fufu? By now, it seems obvious that our history as humans is more intertwined than any of us realize. Much of that history is marred with oppression of one group by another, both within nations, and internationally.

Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria

Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria Image Credit: Wiki-pedia CC 2.0

In the process, a great deal of cultural sharing took place. Some of it was voluntary. Some was forced. However, it’s a part of our heritage, as ethnic peoples, and we embrace our foods, even when those foods were brought to us by conquerors. As stated above, it’s the author’s heartfelt opinion that it’s more how we react to oppression than anything else.

In culture after culture, around the globe, all peoples have a portion of their diet that has been introduced by “outsiders.” Truly making these plants our own, with our own local spices and recipes, is a way of owning our own histories, and fighting oppression and cultural destruction.

So, grow cassava if you want to. Grow cauliflower if you want to. Eat and enjoy your culture! Just remember, cassava plants aren’t going to do too well in New York City. And, no vegetable is “Colonialist”, but rather a part of many oppressed cultures’ diverse culinary identities, worldwide. We could argue that cotton and tobacco and sugar cane are Colonialist plants, but then, few people grow these in their community gardens, either.



Authored by D Alban. Copyright 2019 D Alban, H Miller. All Rights Reserved.

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