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Holiday Gift and Event Guide The Altamont Enterprise, November 19, 2009
A taste of the Iroquois harvest: Hearty and healthy recipes for today
By Ellen Zunon
Imagine walking in the dead of winter from Albany 100 miles west past Utica, floundering through three feet of snow, sometimes waiting for flooding creeks to recede, and wondering where your next meal was coming from. Three young Dutchmen undertook such a journey in the winter of 1634.
With the assistance of Mohawk guides, the trio traveled west from Fort Orange through Mohawk and Oneida territory into what is now Oneida County. As employees of the Dutch West India Company, their mission was to investigate the situation regarding the fur trade. There were reports that the French were making incursions into New Netherland from the north, and were offering the Iroquois more for their furs than the Dutch were.
The three men left Fort Orange on Dec. 11, 1634 with five Mohawk guides, and stayed at a number of Iroquois villages as they made their way west. Once the provisions they had brought with them ran out, they were dependent on their Mohawk and Oneida hosts for nourishment and shelter.
The apparent leader of the expedition, Harmen van den Bogaert, wrote an account of their journey, which has been translated by Dr. Charles Gehring and William Starna, and published by Syracuse University Press in 1988. The journal gives modern readers a window into some of the customs of 17th-Century Iroquois, including an almost daily account of the foods the travelers were offered.
Many of these foods sound familiar to 21st-Century inhabitants of the Capital Region: nearly every upstate New York school child has heard of the “Three Sisters,” corn, beans, and squash, which were the staples of the Iroquois diet. We also still enjoy turkey, salmon, pumpkins, blueberries, strawberries, and corn muffins.
Although we may prepare these foods differently from the way van den Bogaert’s neighbors did, our recipes have their origins in the daily diet of the original inhabitants of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. Some other foods that are mentioned, such as bear meat, beaver meat, rabbit and venison, are a bit more exotic to modern tastes, although not unheard of.
I recently read van den Bogaert’s journal, and, with our own winter holidays approaching, I thought it would be an interesting project to come up with some recipes based on foods mentioned in the journal, but that would be modern enough to appeal to my family. What follows are recipes for two Mohawk Valley meals based on foods the travelers consumed.
On Dec. 14, van den Bogaert writes, “I bought a very fat turkey for two hands of sewant [wampum], which the chief cooked for us; and the grease that cooked from it, he put in our beans and corn.” The journal mentions cornbread on several occasions, which sometimes has beans baked in it, or chestnuts, dried blueberries and sunflower seeds.
Bean and corn stew
Cornbread with berries and sunflower seeds
For the bean and corn stew, I adapted my favorite chili recipe. You can either sauté the scallions, garlic and green pepper first, then add the beans and other ingredients, and simmer for 25 minutes. Or, as an alternate way of cooking this dish, I also tried putting all the ingredients at once into my slow cooker, and letting it cook on low for about 4 hours. Either way, this type of chili or stew always tastes better on the second day, when the flavors have had a chance to melt into each other.
Bean and corn stew
2 stalks scallions cut into ½ inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium green pepper, chopped (or use red or yellow pepper, to give the stew more color)
3 (15-oz.) cans kidney or pinto beans, rinsed and drained (The Iroquois grew several varieties of beans, so you can mix and match to suit your taste. I like to use 1 can each of black, red, and white beans. Or substitute a can of pinto beans for any of those.)
1 (16-oz.) can recipe-style stewed tomatoes, with the juice
1 (8 ¾ oz.) can of corn
½ to 1 tbsp. ground cumin, to taste
2 bay leaves (Be sure to remove these before serving.)
You can also add more flavor if you wish, by adding a half jar of mild salsa and/or a few slices of bacon, crumbled. If you wish to copy van den Bogaert’s description more closely, simmer a couple of turkey drumsticks in chicken stock and serve those on the side.
My great-grandmother, who spent her whole life in the Mohawk Valley, had a simple recipe for cornbread: 1 pint buttermilk, 1 pint cornmeal, 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and a pinch of salt. I decided to make it even simpler by using a cornbread mix:
To your favorite cornbread or corn muffin mix, add any combination of the following:
1/3 cup sunflower seeds, 1/3 cup chopped chestnuts, 1/3 cup dried blueberries. If you cannot find dried blueberries, you can substitute dried cranberries. Or you can use fresh blueberries, which would make the muffins or bread more like our familiar blueberry muffins. Follow instructions on the package for temperature and baking time.
* * *
It is late December. You have been trudging through the wintry landscape for almost three weeks. You are cold, wet, tired and hungry. Approaching your destination, an Oneida village near where the Turning Stone casino now stands, you wonder how you will be received as friend or foe. A figure appears at the crest of the next hill. As she approaches, you see that it is a woman, bringing you baked pumpkins to eat. Later, at the village, you feast on bear meat and salmon every day, the latter caught in the tributaries of the St. Lawrence River. They are so plentiful that the villagers may catch as many as 800 fish in one day.
Whole wheat bread
4 small salmon steaks (or 2 large salmon fillets)
2 tbsp. canola or olive oil
juice of one lemon
½ minced onion (or 1 clove garlic, minced)
2 tsp. dried herbs (your choice I use “herbes de Provence,” a mixture of rosemary, thyme, basil and oregano)
1. Preheat broiler.
2. Rinse salmon and pat dry with paper towels.
3. Place salmon steaks or fillets on pre-greased broiler pan. Brush with half the oil.
4. Broil salmon, turning after 5 to 7 minutes.
5. When turned over, brush again with remaining oil, squeeze the lemon juice over the fish, and sprinkle with minced onion and/or garlic and your choice of herbs.
6. Broil again until done, another 5 to7 minutes.
You may wish to salt a little to taste. Garlic salt adds a nice flavor if you don’t have fresh garlic.
Baked acorn squash
I learned this recipe from a roommate in graduate school. Who would have thought that the basic recipe was hundreds of years old?
1 acorn squash
½ cup honey
1 tbsp. butter or margarine
½ tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Wash squash. Split it open carefully with large knife.
3. Scoop out the pulp and seeds. You can bake the lightly salted seeds alongside the squash if you wish; they make a tasty and nourishing snack.
4. Place squash halves, cut side down, in a shallow baking dish with ½ inch water. This will prevent the squash from getting burned and sticking to the pan. Place pan in oven.
5. After 30 minutes, remove pan from oven, carefully turn squash halves right side up. Pour into each half 1⁄4 cup honey, 1⁄2 tbsp. butter or margarine, 1⁄4 tsp. cinnamon or nutmeg.
6. Bake again until done, about another 30 minutes. Seeds will require less baking time and should not be placed in the same pan with the water and squash.
Heat a loaf of whole wheat bread in the oven for the last 5 to 6 minutes of squash cooking time; it complements the salmon and squash nicely. The Iroquois did not cultivate wheat, but they enjoyed the wheat bread baked by their neighbors at Rensselaerswyck.
Variation: Use butternut squash instead of acorn squash; butter and salt instead of honey. You can reduce baking time by cooking the squash in the microwave for 5 to 10 minutes. Or, if you’re really in a hurry, do the entire cooking process in the microwave, about 10 minutes each side.
* * *
When the travelers left the Oneida village to return east, they were given salmon, bear meat, corn bread, and corn meal to take with them. Along the trail, they would use the corn meal to cook sappaen, a type of porridge much like our modern-day oatmeal. According to food historian Peter Rose, in Food, Drink and Celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch, this Iroquois corn mush became so popular with the Dutch colonists that it became a daily dish for them as it had been for the Iroquois. In fact, it survives in a different form in our supermarkets, in canned creamed corn.
On the whole, the diet described by van den Bogaert is a balanced one, with ample sources of protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. In particular, the growing of corn, beans, and squash together in the same field was the hallmark of Iroquoian horticulture and the basis of their diet. According to extensive research conducted by Dr. John Hart, director of Research and Collections at the New York State Museum, the cultivation of these three crops in New York State in a system known as intercropping, dates from about A.D. 1300. Dr. Hart explains that this system, in which bean and squash seeds are planted around sprouting stalks of corn, requires a sophisticated knowledge of agriculture. It is a polyculture that mimics natural plant communities: The corn stalks furnish a support for the bean plants; the beans, as legumes, produce nitrogen, which makes it a self-fertilizing system; and the squash vines act as a natural mulch, discouraging the growth of weeds.
In the cooking pot as well as in the field, the Three Sisters work well together. Corn is high in calories, and it is 7- to 10-percent protein. Beans contain a larger amount of protein, including a complementary amino acid to that found in corn. Squashes provide significant calories, vitamins, and minerals, and their seeds are high in oil and protein as well.
In the villages visited by van den Bogaert and his companions, foods such as venison, salmon, corn, and berries were dried and either hung from the rafters of the longhouses, or kept in bark-lined storage pits or granaries. In this way, Native Americans hoped there would be enough provisions to last through the long winters.
I have more than a passing interest in Iroquois foodways, as my own ancestor, Cornelis Van Slyck, arrived in Rensselaerswyck from the Netherlands the same year that the trio of young Dutchmen made their journey. Cornelis married a Mohawk woman from the village at Canajoharie, where their four children grew up. I have often wondered By what language did the couple communicate? What did they talk about? What did they eat? Now I have at least a partial answer to my questions.
So try out any of these recipes, put on a CD of Oneida chants by singer Joanne Shenandoah, and enjoy!