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How Indians Cooked their Food

There 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 Indians completely.

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."