Native American food: building on the basics

October 26, 1994|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Special to The Sun

Follow an overgrown trail deep into the woods near the Susquehanna River and step into the kitchen of Linda Coates.

The trees are a towering roof over her head and brush forms the walls around the framework of a Native American long house where Mrs. Coates -- who is also called Silver Otter -- is seated on a woven blanket in front of a crackling, smoky fire.

She came here early this bright fall morning to dig a fire pit, line it with stones and fill it with wood. Soon she is ready to stir up a bit of tradition as she uses age-old techniques to prepare Native American recipes.

This spot in the woods near Conowingo Dam is particularly significant for Mrs. Coates, who is Cherokee. As Native American program coordinator for PECO Energy -- the power company that operates the dam in Harford County -- she has taught classes on self-reliance in nature here and built a medicine wheel, a sweat lodge and the long house where she is now cooking.

On Nov. 5, she will hold her third annual Native American cooking class at the visitors' information center nearby. Participants in the class, which is open to the public, will learn to prepare and then share a meal that includes the types of food that might have been served to the colonists by Native American hunter-gatherers on the East Coast when they arrived here.

The students will make these traditional dishes using some new ingredients, modern methods and conveniences, such as the stove, microwave and electric skillet.

"Native people did simple, basic, straightforward cooking," Mrs. Coates says. "The dishes were not usually real complicated. The recipes had to be very flexible because they had to cook with what was available. You put in as much as you had. And there wasn't any waste."

Many recipes include any combination of corn, beans and squash. They were known as "the Three Sisters" because they were traditionally planted together in a field, with runner beans climbing the cornstalks and squash plants mulching the ground around them.

"From the Three Sisters there is food galore," Mrs. Coates says. Picking up a glistening piece of obsidian, or volcanic glass, she begins to cut a chunk out of the top of a partially cooked pumpkin that is still firm enough to handle. (Baking, which takes one to two hours, can be done in either a modern oven or a fire pit.)

"This is the part people like," Mrs. Coates says, recalling how past participants excitedly scooped seeds and pulp out of pumpkins with their hands. She begins to toast the seeds on a smooth flat stone she has placed over the fire for use as a cooking and heating surface. She'll save the pulp and maybe add it later to some homemade soup.

In a wooden bowl made from the hollowed out knot of a tree, she uses a stone to grind red berries she picked from a spicebush on her way up the hill. Spicebush was the original allspice, she says, and it can also be steeped to make tea. Today she will mix its berries with mature rose hips gathered from under the blossoms of roses for flavoring.

She mixes honey and butter together in a pot she made from a gourd and sets it on the fire to heat. Carefully removing a hot rock from the fire pit, she puts it in a covered basket and shakes it with cut-up apples to warm them. Then she pours the apples, honey-butter sauce and spices into the hollow pumpkin and plugs the hole for cooking.

The flames of the fire have died down now, leaving hot embers and rocks. She lines the fire pit with leaves and branches from the spicebush and lots of corn husks, sets the pumpkin in the middle, and then covers it with corn husks, spicebush and a reed basket. She seals the fire pit and creates an earthen oven by piling rocks and dirt on top.

"This will heat it through and cook the flavor into the pumpkin," Mrs. Coates says. "You can take a stick and poke it down through it, and if you get resistance it's probably not done yet."

When the pumpkin is done, she digs it out of the oven. Using the obsidian, she slices it into wedges. The stiff rind makes a "natural plate" for the apples to sit in, she says.

"My grandmother would bake pumpkin stuffed with venison or any vegetable on a wood stove," she says. "For her, that was like taking a campfire inside. Watching her cook was like watching hands flying. When she measured she would use a handful or a fistful or a pinch. One of the challenges for me was to translate her measurements for cooking."

Baked pumpkin is only one Native American recipe that Mrs. Coates has collected over the years from her grandmother, Mattie Jordan, who was Cherokee, and from acquaintances within the Seneca tribe with which she studied with an elder.

With the baked pumpkin, she will be serving Mohawk black walnuts and corn. Earlier, she had scraped with the sharp obsidian the corn off the cob into her wooden bowl. Then she mixed it with black walnuts and boiled it over the fire before passing the finger food around for sampling.

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