Welcome to What’s for Dinner! I’d like to invite you in to enjoy an American Indian feast. Feasting was, and still is, an important part of American Indian cultures. So come on into my lodge and settle down for some American Indian food. We are going to have three courses: first Hidatsa pumpkin, then some salmon, and finally corn pones.
As you come into the lodge you will notice the smell of sweetgrass. Following a traditional path I have smudged the lodge and the food with a burning braid of sweetgrass to bring about harmony, laughter, and good feelings.
I’m going to assume that most of you know very little about American Indian food. So I’m going to give you a little background before getting to the food (i.e. the recipes).
Five centuries ago, at the beginning of the European invasion of this continent, a majority of Indian people in what is now the lower 48 states of the United States got a majority of the calories which they consumed from plants which they raised. While the popular stereotype of Indians sees them as big game hunters, meat was actually more of a supplement to their agricultural diet.
The most common Indian crops were what the Iroquois called the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. In addition, they raised many other plants for food, fiber, and medicinal uses.
The Hidatsa lived in permanent villages along the Missouri River in North Dakota. The village tribes of the upper Missouri River Valley, such as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, were farming people who raised corn, beans, sunflowers, tobacco, pumpkins, and squash. These tribes produced not only enough agricultural products for their own use, but also a substantial surplus which was traded to other tribes, and later to the Europeans and Americans.
Sensitive to the ecological demands of the Northern Plains, they established fields in the fertile bottomlands where the tillable soil was renewed annually by flooding. The brush which was cleared for the planting was spread over the fields and burned. This practice softened the soil and added nutrients. Hidatsa elder Buffalo Bird Woman, speaking about 1910, says: "It was well known in my tribe that burning over new ground left the soil soft and easy to work, and for this reason we thought it a wise thing to do." In addition, fields were taken out of production and allowed to lay fallow for two years in order to let the land rejuvenate.
(additional comments and clarification have been added throughout by Ojibwa’s wife, who has used this recipe--)
1 4- to 5-pound sugar pumpkin
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon dry mustard
1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or rendered fat
1 pound ground venison, buffalo, or lean beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup wild rice, cooked (or brown and wild rice)
3 eggs, beaten (or egg beaters or egg whites)
1 teaspoon crushed dried sage (the cooking kind)
¼ teaspoon pepper
Preheat oven to 350 F. Cut the top from pumpkin (like you would for a jack o’lantern) and remove seeds and strings from cavity. Prick cavity with a fork all over and rub with 1 teaspoon of salt and the dry mustard. Heat oil in large skillet. Add meat and onion and sauté over medium-high heat until browned. Off the heat, stir in wild rice, eggs, remaining salt, sage, and pepper. Stuff pumpkin with this mixture. Place ½ inch of water in the bottom of a shallow baking pan.
Put pumpkin (and the lid) in the pan and bake for 1 ½ hours, or until tender. Add more water to the pan as necessary to avoid sticking. When done, bring to table with lid askew on top of pumpkin at a jaunty angle—it looks really nice. Cut pumpkin into wedges, giving each person both pumpkin and stuffing. ( The skin is tough and bitter and should not be eaten, but the flesh of the pumpkin will scrape away easily.)
This would also make a good vegetarian recipe by leaving out the meat. It can be rather bland, however, and you may wish to add additional seasoning and cook your rice in a vegetable broth or stock instead of water.
The pumpkin seeds you pulled out can be toasted for a snack.
For our next course, let’s move to the Northwest Coast. The area along the Pacific Coast north of California and between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean is the home to many Indian nations who traditionally based their economy on the use of sea coast and river ecological resources. This is an area which stretches from the Tlingit homelands in Alaska to the Tolowa homelands in northern California. One of the most important foods to the American Indian people of this area was the salmon. The runs of the various species of salmon – chinook, sockeye, pink, coho, chum – provided the people with an ample food supply.
While some of the salmon catch was eaten fresh, most of it was smoked and dried for the winter. Dried salmon was generally good for about six months, though some might last for a year.
To prepare the fish for storage, they were filleted along the spine and then placed on racks to expose them to the sun and wind. This method of drying, works, of course, only in areas where there is adequate wind and sun, such as the drier areas along the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Sometimes the racks were placed over the fire to smoke the fish. In areas that tended to be rainy and damp, such as those along the coast, people relied on smoking and drying to preserve their fish. An important part of the fishing camps in these areas was the smoke house. Inside the smoke house, poles would hold up the fish and allow the smoke to permeate it before escaping through a hole in the roof.
Pacific Smoked Salmon Soup
6 cups chicken broth
½ pound alder-smoked Pacific salmon (or other smoked salmon)
½ cup sliced green onions
½ cup watercress
½ cup small-leaf spinach
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large saucepan, combine chicken broth, smoked salmon, and green onions. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add watercress and spinach. Cook an additional 5 minutes.
Pacific Salmon Chowder
1 tablespoon butter or vegetable oil
4 potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup green onions, diced
¼ teaspoon dill seed
6 cups milk
1 pound fresh salmon, cut into chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
Dill sprigs, for garnish
Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add potatoes, green onions, and dill seed. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add milk and simmer over low heat for 40 minutes. Add fresh salmon and simmer for 10 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish individual servings with dill sprigs.
(Mrs. Ojibwa has not tried these recipes, but thinks they sound a little bland and you may want to add other seasonings. She has, however, eaten salmon steaks freshly smoked over cedar in the traditional way—yum!.)
Traditionally, the American Indian tribes of the Northwest Coast did their cooking in either wooden boxes or in woven bags.
One of the unique items among Northwest Coast Indians are kerfed boxes in which the sides of the box are made by scoring and then bending a single board to form the sides of the box. The single side seam is then carefully fitted and sewn together with spruce root. The bottom of the box is also carefully fitted and sewn to the sides. These boxes are waterproof and some are used for cooking. The watertight boxes can be filled with water and when hot stones are dropped into the box the water can be brought to a boil. The boxes had important advantages over pottery: they stacked more easily, were more transportable and less likely to break if dropped.
Woven baskets were also important to the Northwest Coast nations. The coiled baskets were made watertight so that they could be used for boiling water. As with the wooden boxes, hot rocks were placed in the water-filled baskets until the water boiled.
To top off today’s feast, let’s move to the Southeast. The American Indian nations of the Southeast—the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek—were farming nations long before the arrival of the first Europeans. Unlike European farmers, however, it was the women who tended the fields and owned the food which the fields produced. Crops (primarily corn, beans, squash, and tobacco) were planted along the creeks and bottomlands near the villages. The area would be first cleared by cutting and burning. The ashes of the burnt wood and cane would then nourish the crops. In addition to the primary crops, the Indians of the Southeast also raised sunflower, sumpweed, chenopodium, pigweed, knotweed, giant ragweed, canary grass, amaranth, and melons.
The early European settlers were amazed at the number of different ways that the Indians prepared corn. It is estimated that there were at least 42 different ways of preparing corn, each with its own name. Corn was processed into hominy which has been described as the staff of life for the Southeastern Indians. This process involved the use of wood-ash lye which selectively enhanced the nutritional value of the corn by increasing amino acid lysine and niacin. This protects people who eat a corn-based diet against pellagra.
Corn Pones Recipe:
1 ½ cups cornmeal
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt (optional)
¾ cup water or milk
5 tablespoons bacon drippings, sunflower oil, or corn oil
In a mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Stir in water and 3 tablespoons of melted bacon drippings. In a large, heavy skillet, heat enough of remaining drippings to coat the pan. Drop cornmeal batter by tablespoonfuls in the skillet. Fry pones over medium heat until browned on both sides.
Best when served hot.