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Native American Food and Soupways
(e-SoupSong 57: February 1, 2005)
ONCE UPON A TIME there was a land that had no milk and honey. No butter, no cheese. No beef or pork or lamb or chicken. No rice, no wheat, no rye, no oats. No cabbage, carrots, celery, beets, or peas. No oranges, apples, pears, peaches, or melons. And that wasn't the half of what it didn't have.
Welcome to "precontact" America, circa 1500 AD--and if you lived in its Northern continent, you didn't have tomatoes, peppers, chocolate, vanilla, or potatoes either.
What's that all about, anyway? It's pretty clear that contact had already and decidedly been made with this virgin land some 20,000 years earlier...and possibly even back as far as 50,000 BCE. Humans had arrived in the north from ancient Asia...and spread everywhere, coast to coast and straight down to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego in, relatively speaking, no time at all.
Me, I can't get over this curious development in Earth history. It's a bizarre plot, conjured from the mind of a cosmic science fiction writer.
Chapter One. Earth's geologic history: a do-si-do dance of land and sea over millions of years. Starts out some 360 million years ago with one Ur-continent, Pangaea, lapped by Panthalassa Ocean. This massive land mass breaks in two: "Laurasia" heads north, a fusion of North America, Europe, and Asia. "Gondwanaland" heads south, a fusion of South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia. Then, 60 million years ago, North and South America detach from their different supercontinents, skip-to-my-lou west, and join hands at their south-north tips--thousands of miles away from the other two-thirds of the world. Except, that is, at one bitterly cold, northernmost point--where only a narrow Bering sea separated eastern Asia from western North America.
Chapter Two. The stage is set. Time passes, lots of it. Life independently develops in both worlds...and evolves. Now homo sapiens are merrily populating Africa, Asia, and Europe. But what about those Americas? Lots of plant life; lots of insect, bird, and animal life, sure. But not one human footprint. Not one.
Chapter Three. Now, "suddenly", a door between Asia and America opens--the ice age sucks so much water into ice that the sea level drops...a solid land bridge across that narrow Bering Sea is exposed...and Asian Pleistocene animals, in successive waves, scamper in with hungry, spear-toting humans right behind them.
Chapter Four. Now, "suddenly", the door slams shut. Melting ice caps permanently drown the bridge, cutting off future migrations for many thousands of years.
It's as if our cosmic Isaac Asimov has said, let's conduct a little experiment here: let's plunk some humans down in this abundant, sequestered land that's just bristling with completely different sets of plants and animals...let's not give them any animals that can be domesticated...and let's just see what happens.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE AN OX MAKES
What do you get when you set people loose in a land of meaty wild animals...and not one of them can be domesticated?
Basically, you get people who are forever on the hunt for food.
First ice-age meat--mastodons, sabre-tooth tigers, sloths, camels, horses, lions, and hairy mammoths. None good candidates for riding (except the horse and camel, lost opportunities), pulling a plow, docilely grazing under watchful shepherd's eyes, or scratching in a barnyard. They were gone by about 5000 BCE. A mystery why: maybe climate; maybe the too efficient hunting of homo sapiens.
What was left? Smaller animals. Good-tasting "brothers" like antelope, bear, beavers, bison (the so-called "American buffalo"), chipmunk, deer, elk, possum, rabbit, raccoon, squirrel, rats, insects. Again, not one of them good for riding, pulling a plow, docilely grazing under watchful shepherds' eyes, or scratching in a barnyard. And let's not forget the exception that proves the rule: Dog. Early on, some 3500 years ago, New World man had tamed dog, made him a friend, a hunting companion, a pack animal, and...dinner. But dog alone couldn't and didn't carry permanent, self-sustaining agricultural settlements on his thin bony shoulders.
SO WHAT ELSE does HAPPEN, FOODWISE, IN THIS SEQUESTERED LAND?
Fish, fowl, and plants--all wild as March hares except, of course, the "three sisters" (and tobacco, but that's another story altogether).
Things swimming in lakes, rivers, and the sea? Think clams, oysters, scallops, and mussels; conchs and whelks; sharks and rays; fishes, frogs, turtles, snakes, and alligators. New World man made boats of reeds, bark, hide, and logs to find and chase them.
RIDDLE: We come upstream in red canoes. What are we? (Ahem, we are red salmon).
Things flying in the air? Think ducks, geese, prairie chickens, birds, and wild turkeys (which apparently domesticated themselves among the ancient Anasazis in the southwest, landing in Anasazi pueblos, refusing to be shooed away, brazenly making themselves at home).
Things springing up from the ground? Yep, and things mostly unknown anywhere else in the world:
What about those "three sisters"? Lovely girls. Cultivated...domesticated...aka, corn, squash, and beans.
SO...DID THESE NATIVE AMERICANS MAKE SOUP OUT OF THESE UNIQUE FOODS?
You bet, and it sure wasn't easy. Why? Because New World man did not have bronze pots, did not have iron pots, did not have any metal pots at all. The little copper that was mined around the Great Lakes was worked by artists, not by cooks.
So how was soup made? Carefully. And lots of different ways, varying, of course, over time and from place to place, tribe to tribe, resource to resource.
One way, beginning around 8000 BCE and used up through the 18th century, was the "hot stone" method, using stone vessels, baskets, animal hides, and wooden boxes. Here's how it worked: You'd heat special boiling stones to a high temperature then use tongs to dump them into vessels with food and water. The water would boil pretty fast, then you'd just keep adding hot stones to keep the thing going.
Baskets, though? Did you catch that? The Haida on Queen Charlotte Island would soak their baskets in water to swell the fibers shut, and baste them with water during the cooking to keep the seal tight.
And how about those animal hides? For one, that famous rawhide "buffalo hump" would be fitted into a buffalo-hump-sized hole near a fire, dried, then filled with water, innards, wild plants, and hot stones. Good soup! For two, the buffalo's paunch would be cleaned, filled with water, meat, organs, and hot stones, then staked on a tripod and left alone to cook through. Every scrap was eaten, including the "pot," and every drop of broth drunk. What does the Dakota word for the Assiniboin tribe mean? It means "those who boil with stones."
Another way, beginning around 4000 BCE, was boiling food in pots directly over the fire. This worked with a lot of seemingly flammable things: animal paunches, clay pots, wood kettles, even birch bark baskets.
RIDDLE: What is it? It's round, it sits on stones, it sings. (Ahem, it's a cooking pot).
RIDDLE: Wonder wonder, who can she be? The dark lady on her golden chair? (Ahem, she's a pot on the fire).
RIDDLE: It's grumbling. Beyond the mountain smoke is rising. It chases away the reindeer. What is it? (Ahem, it's a boiling kettle).
But what kinds of soups are we talking about? Lots of different kinds, and all with these strange new world ingredients...that varied, of course, over time and from place to place, tribe to tribe, resource to resource. Think about sunchoke soups. Sunflower seed soups. Squash soups and wild onion soups with dried or fresh berries. Nut soups and clover soups. Dried and fresh soups. Fish and seafood soups. Turtle and turtle egg soups--with turtle broth a remedy for sore throats and a special food for young babies...and turtle shells as ready-to-use bowls. Meat soups with wild plants, berries, and seasonings.
When times were tough, Iroquois made treebark soup. Sioux and Kiowa raided field mice nests for beans and seeds. Great Basin desert tribes made insect and seed soups with dried fly larvae, grasshoppers, yellow jacket grubs, beetles, locusts, and lice.
How to thicken soup so it would fill you up to the brim? Almost everyone across the land stirred in dried and pounded nuts (think about stirring some peanut butter into a watery soup--that would do it). Southern Choctaws stirred in powdered sassafras instead--today's gumbo file.
Other soup traditions: the broth of boiled meal was never thrown out--it was always drunk as a beverage or as a healing broth. Seasonings? The big surprise: very little use of salt. Apparently Native Americans just plain didn't like it all that much. They said it made you too thirsty. They said it turned turned women's hair gray. They always dried or smoked their food to preserve it--never used salt to accomplish the same thing. One of those curious, unexplainable things.
TWO YUMMY RECIPES, PLEASE HOLD THE HOT STONES
(A meal for 4--perfectly okay to use to slightly less authentic ingredients in parentheses)
Heat the fat in a large saucepan, stir in the meat cubes, and brown on all sides. Pour in the broth, add the onions, blackberries (still frozen is fine), and spice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for an hour or more, until the meat is tender. When ready to serve, season to taste with the honey or syrup and salt and pepper and ladle into bowls. Garnish each with the reserved blackberries (fresh or thawed) and sprinkle with the minced onion.
Comments: This soup says it all about Plains Indians and their romance with the so-called buffalo--intensely and wonderfully meaty, fabulous with sweet-tart blackberries. Some see this as a direct descendent of pemmican, the classic Native American road-trip food made of dried meat, bone marrow, berries, and bear grease.
(A vegetarian meal for 4)
May I close with one observation? Native American creation myths are ALL about food and soup. White River Sioux tell how villagers killed Rabbit Boy and cut him up into chunks of meat and put them in a soup pot...but couldn't kill his Takuskanskan, the life spirit, that rose up and flourished for all time. Southern Utes tell about a superbaby born from boiling a buffalo's blood clot into soup. Senecas tell of deer intestine soup fueling a baby savior. Cheyenne tell a mythic story of corn and buffalo meat soups figuring into the story of the Arrow boy hero...and they also tell of how dog soup preceded the sacred sun dance. Fact is, so many Native American myths and stories are about food and soup. Why? Because it was the daily preoccupation. And the comfort of hot, warming, sustaining, communal soup was, let's face it, one of the wonderful ends to a hunting-gathering kind of a day.
SPECIAL OFFER! For those of you sweet enough to buy my new book, Exaltation of Soups, I'd be delighted to provide personal inscriptions without the pain of you sending me the book. Selina at Three Rivers Press has ordered me custom postcards with the book cover on the front. Just email me at email@example.com, tell me what you'd like as an inscription, and send me your address: I'll fill out as many cards as you like, pop them in an envelope, and send them to you.
Resources: Evelyn Beilenson's Early American Cooking; John Berhorst's Lightening Inside You; Joseph Bruchac's Native American Stories; Cottie Burland's North America and Mythology; Cambridge World History of Food on New World foods; Beverly Cox and Martin Jacob's Spirit of the Harvest; Edward S. Curtis' Native Americans; Fernando and Marlene Divina's Foods of the Americas; Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz's American Indian Myths and Legends; Fleming and Luskey's The North American Indians; Albert C. Goodyear's study of the Topper site in South Carolina; a bunch of Tony Hillerman's Joe Leapfoot and Jim Chee mysteries--terrific!; Phyllis Hughes' Pueblo Indian Cookery; Alvin Josephy, Jr's Indians; Tim Johnson's Spirit Capture; Barrie Kavasch's Native Harvests: Botanicals & Recipes of the American Indian; Kootenai Culture Committee's Ktunaxa Legends; Bobby Lake-Thom's Spirits of the Earth; Gerald McMaster and Clifford E. Trafzer's Native Universe; A. Scott Momaday's The Names; More Than Bows and Arrows video; Lucille Recht Penner's A Native American Feast; Pringle's In Search of Ancient North America; Howard S. Russell's Indian New England Before the Mayflower; Gene Stuart's America's Ancient Cities; Brian Swann's Touching the Distance; Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's History of Food; James Trager's The Food Chronology; and Geoffrey Turner's Indians of North America._______________________
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