Though times have changed, some foods have not changed all that much. For most, New England clam chowder and Boston baked beans are synonymous with Northeastern fare, and both originated as staple foods of the coastal Natives.
While both dishes were altered with English ingredients, the original recipes offer a return to more healthful ways of eating. Cooking Northeastern Native foods today is not difficult, especially with modern kitchen tools; and according to Rachel Sayet, Mohegan Food Blogger, Connecticut and Rhode Island tribes were able to remain on their homelands, and therefore many of the ingredients used hundreds and even thousands of years ago are still used today.
On February 22, Sayet gave a presentation to health food aficionados at Fiddleheads Food Cooperative in New London, Connecticut. She offered the crowd a sampling of traditional foods including dried cranberries and a version of pemmican, dried meats, that are now available retail through Tanka Bars. She also provided a non-traditional bowl of ice cream with the very traditional Mohegan yokeag, made of roasted ground corn kernels, which gave a crunchy, nutty flavor to the vanilla ice cream.
Vanilla ice cream topped with yokeag, a roasted and ground corn product that tastes similar to toasted almonds.
Corn was a staple of the Northeastern tribes and used in many ways. Journey cakes, more commonly known as Johnny Cakes, were made simply with ground corn and water, and were sometimes seasoned with berries or meat. The cakes traveled well and lasted through a long day’s journey, hence the name. “They would stay fresh all day and a little bit went a long way,” Sayet said. “Traditionally made from flint corn mixed with water, they were cooked in the ashes of a fire. Many Native families still make it the traditional way. Newer recipes add eggs, milk or sugar,” Sayet said, “but sometimes it is quite a bit better with just the water.”
Sayet’s mother, Melissa Fawcett, was also at the event, and she recalled the traditional method of making succotash. Remembering her childhood in the kitchen with the women of the family, Fawcett said, “I was close to my great aunt Gladys. She taught me how to cook certain Mohegan traditional dishes, and among them was succotash, which we ideally make with the first corn of the season. You cut each kernel of corn horizontally, then vertically. Then you cut the kernels off, and then you cut the top off of the cob with a sharp knife. Then boil the cob to get the nutrients from the cob.” The painstaking process has been made much simpler with modern technology. “Now we cut it once and put it into the Cuisinart,” she laughed.
Fawcett said succotash is made in large batches and usually for a large event. Sayet added, “Feasting after ceremony has always been an integral component (of tribal life) in New England and throughout the country.”
Thinking back to Mohegan dinners of times past, when shells served as plates, gourds as storage, tortoise shells as platters, and pots were made of Shantokware, it is easy to imagine a homey image of family and friends, gathered daily to share a supper from a large pot of foods that we can still enjoy today. Food consciousness has become a cause celebre, and with cranberries, an assortment of nuts, and over 1,000 different plants used for seasoning, it is a far cry healthier than the average diet today. Back in 1606, even the European Giovanni Battista Ramusio wrote in Terzo, Volume Delle Navigationi et Viaggi, Venice, 1606, “I wish to God that we would follow their example. For we would be free from many of the kinds of diseases which we fall into by sumptuous and unseasonable banquets... and provocation of gluttony to satisfy our insatiable appetites.”
Tanka Bars are the modern version of pemmican, and travel just as well as that did in the old days.
from the Mohegan Archives
2 cups of water
2 cups cornmeal
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp butter or animal fat
Add 1/2 cup dried fruit such as cranberries, blueberries, cherries or chopped nuts.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in the cornmeal, salt, butter and berries or nuts. Place in the bottom of a greased 8-inch square pan and bake for 25 minutes. Cut into squares and serve.
Rachel Sayet and her mother Melissa Fawcett are experts on Mohegan cooking.
from Melissa Fawcett
4 dozen ears of corn
4 pounds shell beans, soaked overnight
1 pound salt pork (optional)
Salt and pepper
Boil the salt pork. Boil beans in another pot. When the salt pork is nearly cooked, add the beans. Skim the pot with the salt pork and beans.
Before the corn is cooked, split the corn kernels down the middle, then the top half of each kernel is removed, and finally the whole kernel is removed. Steam the cobs in another pot for ten minutes.
Cook the beans and salt pork for about 45 minutes, then add the corn to the salt pork and beans. Scrape the cobs into the pot with the corn and beans. Simmer slowly for an hour. Stir regularly. Salt and pepper to taste.
Modern Day Narragansett Strawberry Bread
from Dale Carson’s New Native American Cooking
This bread was originally made without sugar and eggs, and was noted in writings of the pilgrims to have been delicious.
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup maple sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup finely ground walnuts
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
Milk to make a stiff batter
1 cup wild strawberries, rinsed, stemmed and quartered
Preheat over to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and maple sugar. Add egg and beat until smooth. Add flour, nuts, baking powder, and salt. Stir and add enough milk to make a stiff batter. Gently fold in the strawberries and turn batter into an 8 or 9-inch square baking pan. Bake in the center of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Let cool before slicing.
Clams or Mussel Chowder
from the Mohegan Archives
24 medium sized quahog clams
3 oz. salt pork, chopped in small bits
1 large onion, chopped
4 large potatoes
3 cups of broth including the juices from shucking the clams
Sage and thyme to taste
Brown off the minced salt pork until all the grease is rendered. Add chopped onion and cook until translucent. Add potatoes, seasonings, and shellfish meat. Add broth and calm juices. Cook gently until potatoes are cooked and then simmer gently until serving. Make extra for the next day.