Root Vegetables are Weird: Maca, Part 1 – Nutrient Elements

Root Vegetables are Weird: Maca, Part 1

How, exactly, In the beginning of time, did ANYONE discover berries or something strange looking to be edible? I never quite get how anyone figured eating roots did them any good. I mean, if we’d evolved from something like a badger that trundles around in the undergrowth sniffing things out I might get it, but we spent our primal days halfway up trees, didn’t we? Up among the bananas and mangos and things, falling in love with dessert for thousands of years. I’ll bet that when the first person waving a potato around said that it had any use other than as bad firewood the rest of the tribe just bust a gut laughing.

I almost get it with yams. I mean, yams are delicious, and they’re such a friendly shade of orange. It ain’t too hard to imagine somebody stumbling across a half-exposed yam and at least trying it. I’ll never get potatoes, though. It doesn’t help that the potato wasn’t perfected until the invention of butter, which had to have come a long time later.

That’s history, though. 

Human beings have always done this. We have a particular talent for it. Most of it comes from watching other creatures poking about in the undergrowth and seeing what they eat, then making the leap the if it’s good for other animals then it must be okay for me. It’s got to be something like that, or else I don’t know how we would ever have figured out potatoes. On the top: poisonous flower. Underneath: flavorless, difficult to chew, starchy bulb. It took some real imagination to follow through with eating potatoes.

I’m picking on potatoes because they’re the most iconic version of this phenomenon I can think of. There’s plenty other examples.

Yum yum Maca Roots

(Okay look at these - they ALMOST look like ice cream)...ok, ok, not really)

The ones that particularly confuse me are the medicinal ones. It’s a leap for me to imagine the leap of imagination it took to watch animals finding root vegetables and decide to try them too. You know, critters just critting around, and we’re all critters when it comes to it. It’s a stretch for me to imagine human beings with enough open-mindedness to try turnips for the first time, but it’s a leap I can make if I imagine the right circumstances leading up to it.

The leap I have more trouble making is the one that ends in discovering calorically negligible, odd-tasting roots that are good for me for reasons other than as a vessel for bacon bits and butter. We have so many of these about, though. Like, I can almost understand ginger root: it’s not TOO weird-looking a root, and it’s got a pleasant flavor. And, if you’ve ever seen a ginger plant, they’re not bad looking plants. So ginger can have a pass. Ginseng too. I need to do a little bit of mental parkour to tell myself the story of discovering ginseng, but I get there in the end.

The one that’s been leaving me baffled is maca.

I mean, to start off, have you seen one of these plants? It looks like the kind of weed that produces goatheads. It’s a sort of low-growing creeper of a thing with little leaves and spindly stems. It’s like a hairy spider that got squashed. It’s not a striking plant at all.

And the roots are weird to look at. They’re substantial, sure, but they’re like turnips that need a shave—mountain-man radishes. They’re not elegant.

But here's the wonderful part: Maca doesn’t taste bad. It would be unfair and inaccurate to call its flavor a bad flavor. It has that going for it. That said, it is a weird flavor. To me, it tastes like somewhere else. They say that the sense of smell is the sense most closely associated with memory, and they say that taste and smell are the same sense, chemically speaking. There’s the buildup. The punchline is that maca’s flavor reminds me of exactly nothing. I don’t want to sound hokey, but if there is anything to this idea that our sense of smell is the sense most closely associated with memory, then the flavor of maca conjures up genetic memories. Not memories of my experiences, but memories in my DNA. It’s reminding me of mountains and forests and rivers I’ve never visited.

It tastes like being outside somewhere rich with life.

It tastes a little like gardening, a little like hiking, and a little like the air after rain.

I am a hippy.

So it’s weird. It’s weird—simple as that.

Maybe I’m showing a cultural bias. I mean, no flavor palate is a human universal. Taste is cultural, as we can learn from people who prefer Wonder Bread and people who prefer homemade sourdough. What tastes “good” for me won’t for everyone, and, in my experience, everyone likes weird stuff. So maybe the people who first found maca really liked how it tasted. I imagine that if I had been the first person to find ginger I’d probably be pretty happy with it.

We’ve always done this, though. Human beings have always had the power of imagination necessary to find something weird and make amazing leaps of reasoning to say that the weird thing does something cool. We figure stuff out. That’s what we do.

So what DO we know about Maca?

Maca root does some pretty cool stuff for human chemistry. It balances some chemicals, boosts others, and it just generally does stuff in animals. I can’t imagine how the discoverers of it made any of the leaps of reasoning needed to figure its magical properties, but scientists have gone and done some science experiments to find the chemicals in maca that do what the old mystics always said the stuff does.


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