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Snowed In: Preparing Food for Winter Hardship

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As ‘the white stuff’ piles a foot deep or more in New England, I begin to wonder how our ancestors survived winters like this two to four hundred years ago.

One thing they did was “prepare”—a tradition I try to carry on. When tribes or bands traveled to the coastline in summer to enjoy clams, oysters, scallops, crabs, lobsters, herring, shad and more, they not only ate the species daily by the sea, but dried or smoked them to bring back to the winter camp to be cached.

The harvest of corn, beans, squash, mushrooms, sunchokes and sometimes wild rice were stashed in containers below the frost line for the hard times. Teas and other winter beverages were often readily available from white pine trees, staghorn sumac, and dried herbs like mint, sassafras, birch and others.

Last week I gave a Native cooking talk and demonstration in Massachusetts at Old Sturbridge Village, an educational living history museum, which highlights colonial life from 1790-1840. Dr. Marge Bruchac (Abenaki) portrays the Indian Doctress Molly Geet at the museum. She also designs Native programs, intended to bring awareness to the public of the often intertwined lives of Native people as they are were displaced by the Colonists.

Asked to demonstrate Winter Traditions and how our ancestors handled the hardships of the season, I presented a Native kitchen of pre- and post-contact period artifacts and food samplings, including pumpkin bread, dill-bean salad and Askutasquash soup.

Back to the past. Toward the end of winter, Native caches inevitably dwindled. Game became scarce as corn; beans and squash, which filled some gaps, would be exhausted as well before spring. Severe weather and/or sickness could wreak havoc on the people even though they prepared.

I still consider it essential to have a ‘worst scenario’ plan. Today, that may mean stocking up on dried foods, chicken broth and gallons of bottled water for emergencies. Personally, I like to keep the ingredients for Askutasquash soup on hand.

Askutasquash Soup

1 large, or 2 medium butternut squash

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1 med-large sweet onion, chopped

1 tablespoon butter

3 cups chicken stock

1 cup sweet apple cider, or apple juice

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon curry powder

Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Split squash lengthwise down the middle, remove seeds, and place on a baking sheet flesh side down. Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour, until soft. Cool to handle. Remove flesh to a bowl or processor. Saute onion in butter until translucent. Add to squash plus ½ cup chicken broth. Puree and add more stock as needed. Pour into a large saucepan, adding remaining stock, cider and seasonings.

Dale Carson (Abenaki) is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking, and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for over 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with them and her husband in Madison, Conn.