How Indians Cooked their Food
is one thing about an Indian fire that must be mentioned.
It is small and direct. It does not blaze away for nothing
and waste heat and fuel. The fire is directly under a
pot and it is easy to approach it. Such fires could be
built in tipis and wigwams without danger, and when made
outside they saved fuel, and the minimum of smoke did
not attract enemies, nor did they set the woods ablaze.
Many times corn bread and cakes were baked
in the ashes. To do this the bread was laid in a clean
spot in the ash bed and then covered with white ashes
and embers. Heckewelder, the missionary who lived with
the Delaware people more than a century ago, says that
this bread was of two kinds; one made up of green corn
while still "in the milk," and the other of
dry and ripened corn. This is pounded as fine as possible
in a wooden mortar, sifted and then kneaded into a pasty
dough. When thoroughly mixed with water it is formed
into cakes about a span in diameter, round and with rounded
edges, like an auto wheel.
Corn, indeed, formed the principal diet
of the Indians of the eastern part of the United States
and nearly all of Mexico. Its cultivation, in general,
followed the drainage system of the Mississippi and Missouri
rivers. There were many kinds of corn and from these
varieties many different dishes were prepared. The common
corn of the eastern Indians was soft white corn, sometimes
called Tuscarora corn (Zea mays amylacea). Real Indian
meal was white and floury, and not yellow and granulated
as we have it now.
In order to prepare this corn for cooking
it was first pulled from the husk, shelled, and then
thrown in a solution of wood ashes and water. This
was really a weak lye, and its strength was tested by
having it just strong enough to "bite the tongue." In
this the corn was boiled for twenty or thirty minutes.
When the outer covering of the corn, the skin or hulls,
looked swelled and loose, the first process was over.
The corn was then dipped out and put in a tall washing
sieve. In this it was rinsed in a brook or in a tub until
the lye had been washed out and the hulls had loosened
and floated away. This left the half cooked, white interior
ready for grinding or smashing in a mortar. When
pulverized, the soft, wet meal was sifted in a wooden
basket having a fine mesh, say, onesixteenth of
an inch. This done, the meal was mixed with boiling water,
just enough, and quickly molded into a flat, circular
cake. The cook now dips her hands into very cold water
and rubs them over the cake to give it a smooth surface,
to make it shiny. This helps keep the flavor in when
cooking. Two things may now be done. The cake may be
wrapped in cloth or husks and boiled, or it may be wrapped
in leaves and baked in the fire, as Heckewelder described.
Sometimes red kidney beans were put in
the meal, sometimes various kinds of berries or
nuts. One thing is certain; this bread is fine food
and once one has eaten it it remains a life-long passion.
It is sliced and laid in a plate or piece of bark, and
eaten with sunflower oil, nut oil or maple syrup. When
cold it is excellent fried. The juice in which it is
boiled, it being done when it floats,is saved as a gruel
or thin soup.
In my boyhood days I often took my lunch
to school. As our family had many things of a modern
nature that other Indians lacked, I had wheat bread,
roast beef, jelly cake and cookies. These I would trade
with the boys from "up the hill" for their
Indian corn bread and hulled corn hominy,-and I was the
one who got the bargain. The hunger for these old foods
still continues with Christian Indians, and when they
hold their church socials and pink teas they have hulled
corn quite as often as they have ice cream.
This hulled corn was prepared as for bread.
When thoroughly freed from the hulls and outer skin it
was thrown in cold water and boiled for four hours, or
until the kernel burst open. Pieces of meat were added
to give a good flavor.
There were many combinations of corn foods,
some of which were cooked with nut meal or nut oil, some
with various kinds of meat, and some with vegetables.
The diet seemed to meet the taste and the needs of the
Sweet corn was scraped from the cob and
beaten into a paste in a mortar. This paste is then placed
in a large kettle lined with basswood leaves, three deep.
When it is packed in, the top is smoothed off, covered
with a layer of three leaves, sprinkled with white ashes,
half an inch thick, and this in turn covered with glowing
embers. The kettle is now placed over a small fire, which
is constantly renewed, and the top embers are renewed
three times. The dish is now "all set" and
if the pot hangs in a sheltered place where it will
not cool rapidly it may remain without fire for the night.
Many times, however, the kettle is taken from its tripod
and placed on the warm bed of the old fire and heaped
about with ashes.
When morning comes the ashes are brushed
from the top, the shriveled leaves removed, and a steaming
mess of the most appetizing breakfast food ever invented
is revealed. Taken from the kettle the baked corn
is sliced and may be dried before a gentle fire, or if
placed in trays may be dried in the sun, care being to
take it in at night. The food is called Ogonsah.
Parched corn and popcorn were used by the
eastern Indians. Blue soft corn was thought to be the
best for parching. When well roasted it was sifted and
packed ina tight receptacle. It might even be mixed with
powdered meat, nuts and sugar. This formed the traveler's
pemmican. To prepare it, a handful was mixed with
two cups of water and then cooked for a half hour.
There were many wild foods in the forest
which were gathered in season, both for ready use and
for winter storage. Chief among these were berries, nuts,
artichokes, mushrooms and wild fruits. Mushrooms,
especially the oyster mushroom, were dried and mixed
with meats. Artichokes were boiled like little potatoes,
though when fresh were eaten raw. Berries were sweetened
with maple sugar and eaten as we eat them now. For winter
use these berries were dried on great basket trays, packed
in bark containers and-put away.
Nuts were pounded with their shells, flung
in water and boiled until the shells had all been skimmed
off. Some nuts, like the chestnut, were carefully peeled
and mixed with bread and hominy.
Green foods were not lacking in the Indian's
diet. He was fond of the sprouts of young plants, as
wild raspberries, which he ate like asparagus.
For flavoring, sassafras, wintergreen,
hemlock tips, wood ashes, bayberries, pepper root, wild
ginger and the like were used. The Indians used salt
sparingly, believing that an excess caused illness and
an unnatural thirst. The use of white wood ashes took
the place of salt when the latter was not obtainable.
Heckewelder in writing of the Lenape Indians
says, "They are not only cleanly in their eating,
but even delicate, and they will sometimes resist
pressing calls of hunger rather than eat the flesh of
those animals which they consider as not being the proper
food for man."