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Seeds of a food revolution

Living on the land _ and the waters _ provided Native Americans with a very rich feast, one that has survived much better than its creators and is now on most American tables.

While the most romanticized techniques of living in harmony with nature, such as converting animal skins into moccasins and tepees or fashioning flint arrowheads and bark canoes, virtually disappeared with the Mohegans, the foods cultivated by tribes from the Southeast to Northwest are still common.

Native American ingredients such as pumpkin and turkey have become mandatory parts of the U.S. Thanksgiving dinner, but even more ingredients and preparations can be found today in both North and South American menus, only slightly updated.

And beyond. In "Seeds of Change," a Smithsonian Institution exhibit marking the quincentenary of the encounter between New World and Old, two of the five "seeds" recognized as agents of massive change were Native American crops. The corn of North and Central America soon fed West Africa, and the potato of the Andes fueled the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Today the two crops are now more widely planted around the globe than wheat or rice.

There's much more. Consider if any of your favorites are on this list: succotash, corn pone, stuffed peppers, beef jerky, pecans, steamed clams, tacos, baked beans, smoked salmon, wild rice, maple syrup and popcorn.

Look through Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs (Stewart Tabori and Chang, 1991), and you'll see that your favorites were eaten hundreds of years ago, often before the first Europeans and Africans arrived.

Well, maybe not eaten exactly the same. The authors report that Algonquians were reported to toss popcorn kernels into the fire and try to catch them, as a form of sport, when they popped out.

Still, the Iroquois baked their beans with maple syrup, the Pueblo did cook with squash blossoms, and the Seminole realized that alkalinity improved cornmeal (they used hickory ash instead of baking soda).

Although the venison and buffalo that once provided protein and other useful goods are now largely novelty items, duck, fish and shellfish are still common, and modern Americans enjoy many of the same nuts, seeds and berries, although we could stand to relearn the use of nuts as a thickening agent and protein source.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Native American tribes was not in hunting or gathering but in the farming of vegetables. The triad of corn, squash and beans, known to the Iroquois and other tribes as the Three Sisters, was a staple of many diets.

The cultivation of such crops was both sacred and serious business, and their popularity was widespread throughout the Americas. For instance, Chile's national dish of porotos, made of cranberry beans, corn and squash, can be traced to this ancient combination.

Of course, natives of the Caribbean and Central and South America enjoyed other foods _ from hot chocolate and pineapples and potatoes to avocados _ that we still eat.

And throughout the hemisphere, they seasoned freely with a wide range of herbs and spices, including coriander, juniper berries, sage, file gumbo (sassafrass) and allspice, as well as a rainbow of peppers.

In return, after the arrival of Europeans and Africans, native Americans acquired peppercorns, white cane sugar, beef, pork, chicken, okra, citrus, peaches, pears, bananas, watermelons and honey, which eventually were worked into their recipes.

Here are a few from Spirit of the Harvest:

Peanut Soup

2 cups dry-roasted peanuts, finely chopped, or 1 cup chunky-style peanut butter

2 cups chicken broth

2 cups milk or cream

2 teaspoons snipped fresh chives

Salt and ground pepper

In a heavy saucepan, combine peanuts, broth and milk. Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring. Simmer 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally.

Sprinkle with chives and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serves 4.

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