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Three Sisters, Blue Zones and what they’ve got to do with healthcare dining

Morrison Healthcare provides each location of the Mayo Clinic with local culinary inspiration, and ideas keep coming, including a superstar farm-forward recipe incorporating corn, beans and squash by Chef Michael Millben.
three sisters
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The city of Jacksonville, Florida has aspirations to become a new Blue Zone. If you’ve never heard of Blue Zones, these are regions around the globe where the population is known for living happy, healthy—and super long—lives, extensively researched and dissected for clues into these fountains of youth.

Explanations and specific characteristics vary just as much as the regions themselves—some communities drink wine a lot of the day (sign me up!) and others abstain; some are plant-based eaters, some are not. Commonalities do include eating minimally processed foods, healthy fats and having a sense of community. Oily fish and whole grains come up a lot, too. There’s Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica and Icaria, Greece.

Don’t see your town’s name on that list? Not all is lost, thanks to our existing knowledge of what makes Blue Zones tick. Combined with a chef’s creativity and knowledge of local ingredients, recipes with impact can come along and set your compass to “thriving,” no matter where you live.

Three Sisters Blue Zone Tacos are one such recipe, created recently by Morrison Healthcare Chef Michael Millben of the Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville location.

His competitive spirit is what spurred the idea. During a weekly chef’s huddle call, Millben happened to see a notice for a healthcare culinary contest on a shared screen.

“I said, ‘Can you go back a few slides?’ and then I thought, ‘I’m gonna do this. I like to compete,’” Millben says. “I looked over the rules and the deadline was Oct. 31 and this was already the second week in October.”

So, with the help of a quick-acting marketing team and “lots of moving pieces,” Millben was ready to compete. But with what? That’s when his feverish brainstorming began on his search for “a dish that will stand out, be fun, look good and taste good, especially for a hospital setting,” he says. “I erased everything on my vision board in my apartment, then it was basically a tree of ingredients, and I knew I had to narrow it down.”

Tacos revealed themselves as the answer, as a popular local food in Jacksonville. The Blue Zone that interested Millben the most turned out to be Costa Rica, which has a climate and some culinary foodways similar to Florida. He’s shared his cooking skills with local news stations in an effort to bring awareness to turning Jacksonville into a Blue Zone. Finally, Millben’s roots in Oklahoma reminded him of the Three Sisters.

Corn, beans and squash are called that because they take care of each other like family when they are planted together. This Iroquois and Cherokee approach is essentially regenerative farming, with corn on small hills surrounded by beans and squash interspersed throughout the field. Each ingredient plays a part in keeping the field alive and thriving.

The beans “absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it to nitrates, fertilizing the soil for the corn and squash. In return, they are supported by winding around the corn stalks. The squash leaves provide ground cover between the corn and beans, preventing weeds from taking over the field. These three plants thrive together better than when they are planted alone,” according to the USDA National Agricultural Library, a great resource to learn more about everything agriculture.

And how cool is this: When you eat corn, beans and squash together, that’s a complete protein.

Fusing the ideas of the Three Sisters, the Blue Zones, better hospital food and Jacksonville’s hope to become a Blue Zone, Millben’s recipe became an instant classic with chayote squash (with a crisp bite like an apple), plain old corn (roasted for that smoky flavor) and black beans, an accessible ingredient just about everywhere.

The tacos won the competition, and this week Millben’s attending Menus of Change at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park. The silver lining? Millben is a 2019 CIA graduate, so returning feels like a great full-circle moment.

3 sisters blue zone taco recipe

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