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Walk through most market or grocery stores, and you’ll find a variety of chips and crackers marketed as grain or gluten free. That is thanks to cassava. Even if you haven’t tried these tasty alternatives, you may have consumed cassava in tapioca, the little pearls used in pudding and baking, that are derived from the plant’s starchy, tuberous root.
While the plant has garnered some attention within the U.S. “health food” sector, it holds incredible power at both the global and local level. An estimated 800 million people around the globe consume cassava and it is a staple for 500 million people in Africa. In Burlington and Winooski, Vermont, it connects community, culture, and homeland through the local, immigrant-owned markets that sell it.
Cassava is known by a variety of names — manioc, yuca, pondu, fufu, saka, tapioca, and more. Each name carries a different tradition based on the culture preparing it. Whichever name is used, cassava is an important tropical root crop because of the dietary energy it provides.
Every part of the plant is edible, making it versatile and economical. The cassava shrub roots can be ground into flour, baked into bread, fried into chips, or eaten with fish, rice, or plantains. The leaves are often consumed with vegetables. Cassava grows in a range of conditions, tolerating drought and higher rainfall regions alike. “It’s really a blessed plant,” says Muyisa Mutume, owner of M. Square Vermont in Winooski.
Interviews with market owners and their customers during Historic New England’s project, More than a Market, confirmed cassava’s prominence in the lives of local new Americans. While the cassava leaves and roots are typically consumed fresh in Africa, it can be frozen and stored for months, a characteristic that allows Vermont-based Green Mountain Cassava to import and sell it to local markets. “We eat cassava leaves, and in Africa, usually you just go and grab the cassava leaves and you pound it until it’s very smooth,” says Faraja Achinda, a customer at M. Square Vermont. “But because it’s hard to find those type of cassava leaves in America, so what they’ve learned to do is they do all the process and they package them in the freezer and they sell them here. It taste like home.”
The importance of the plant goes beyond its roots and leaves. Leaving behind traditional foods is a challenge for immigrants — regardless of the abundance of food in a new home, nothing can replace the physical, emotional, and social benefits of accessing culturally familiar food. In a new environment, a single dish can transport us back to a place or time, providing comfort and peace. Shopping for familiar foods like cassava in the markets brings members of the community together and fosters connection over shared experiences and traditions.
Local markets that sell frozen cassava provide an opportunity to see the plant in its whole form and to expand our cooking knowledge. Given cassava’s prominence worldwide, it is surprising that it is not more mainstream in the U.S.
Burlington and Winooski natives could benefit from the plant’s versatility. For newcomers to the community, seeing a familiar food in unfamiliar spaces may create a sense of true inclusivity. The transformative nature of cassava — physically and in the lives of people — should not be overlooked. It is worth far more than a bag of grain-free chips; it is a connector to home, to each other, and to cultural identity.
Claire Kohler was an intern with the More than a Market project and a senior Global Studies major/French minor at the University of Vermont.
Photos are by Mary Rizos