The First Grain

Millet was once known, not necessarily by name, as the little round seeds in bird seed that the birds never seemed to eat. Recently, however, Americans have decided to join the rest of the world and to think of millet as a nutritious and healthful food.

Setaria italica (Photo: Howard F. Schwartz)

Setaria italica (Photo: Howard F. Schwartz)

Millet” is not actually a taxonomic group, but a flag of convenience flown by several different genera of grasses in two subfamilies of the family Poaceae that have been cultivated throughout the Old World since the Stone Age. There are tropical millets – Eleusine and Pennisetum – and temperate millets – Panicum, Setaria, and Echinochloa – with many varieties cultivated throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. In North America only one species is grown in large quantities, Panicum miliaceum, and it is mostly used as bird food.

The tropical millets are believed to have been the first cultivated grains 7,000 years ago. Their use seems to have begun in western Africa and spread to the rest of the world during the Neolithic Period. They tolerate arid environments with exhausted soils, but respond enthusiastically to more fertile, wetter settings. Of the top five millet producers, three of them – Nigeria, Niger, and Mali – are in west Africa. The top producer is India and number five is China. All the other in the top 10 are in Africa.

Pennisetum glaucum

Pennisetum glaucum

Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is the most widely grown species. It is most often boiled to make a porridge, but it is also fermented to make alcoholic beverages. Throughout the developing world effort is focused on producing varieties that can tolerate even sketchier conditions, deliver even more nutrition, and produce more tons per hectare.

Finger millet (Eleusine coracana) is another tropical millet. It is often ground into a flour and made into different types of bread, depending on the culture that grows it. Originating in Ethiopia, it is adapted to higher elevations and can be grown far up in the Himalayas. It is an important source of proteins that missing from diets that depend heavily on cassava and other starchy foods.

The most widely grown temperate-zone species is foxtail millet (Setaria italica, which is descended from S. viridis), which has been under cultivation in China since the 6th millenium B.C. and reached Europe in the 2nd millennium B.C.

The common millet is also called proso (from the Slavic name) millet or white millet (P. miliceum). Not closely related to other millets, its wild ancestor is still unknown, but appears in the archaeological record as a cultivated plant in the Caucaucus (Georgia) in the 5th millennium B.C. Although used primarily as a foodstuff for centuries, during the 20th century it was largely grown to feed livestock and birds (domesticaed, wild, and caged). In this gluten-free era it is now making a comeback as a health food.

Panicum miliaceum

Panicum miliaceum

Millet has been shown to be a good source of magnesium, which is apparently good for the heart and to reduce the frequency of migraines. A cup of cooked millet gives you 19 percent of your daily magnesium allowance. It is also claimed that a regular diet of millet (along with other whole grains) will stave off Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, and breast cancer.

The whole foods manufacturer Eden Foods recommends using proso millet as a main dish (boil for 30 minutes), in stews and soups, to make veggie burgers, croquettes, stuffing, and millet mashed “potatoes.” It even adds substance to pancake batter.

It is the golden millet and red millet, cultivars of P. miliaceum, that most feeder birds tend to shun. Ducks love golden millet though, and duck hunting web sites urge landowners to plant the stuff near their hunting grounds to attract migrating flocks in the fall. Caged birds, like parrots, will also eat golden millet.

Apparently the sticking point is whether you have bird seed that contains “proso millet” or just “millet”. The former is what you want and the latter is just filler. Ground-feeding birds will eat proso millet (eastern species prefer white proso and western species prefer red proso) with gusto. 

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