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Getting to Know Alsoomse and Her People, Part 2

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Last month I told you about how the Lenape dressed, where they lived and how they traveled. This month since, Canadian Thanksgiving has recently ended, and American Thanksgiving is coming in a few weeks, I thought it would be a great time to talk about what the Eastern Woodland people ate. So much of what we enjoy on our Thanksgiving tables is food that originated here in North America and was first enjoyed by the Native Americans and shared with family and friends during their Fall Harvest Festivals.

Additionally, just as many Americans enjoy watching football on Thanksgiving Day, during these harvest festivals, the Native American tribes or First Nations held competitions with other tribes (the precursor to the game we know as lacrosse) that lasted two to three days. All hostilities between rival tribes would be set aside during these games, just as the Ancient Greeks suspended their rivalries during the early Olympic Games that were held every four years.

Ball Players, by George Catilin (1796-1872), Hand-colored lithograph on paper

The Lenape of the Hudson River region ate a surprisingly varied diet. In schools we always teach that the Native American tribes from the Eastern Woodlands region over to the Southwest, grew and ate the three sisters: maize (corn), beans, and squash. They also hunted and fished. And generally, we left it at that. However, when you delve into the earliest accounts describing the lifestyle and diet of the Native Americans in the 17th century, it is clear that they ate an incredible variety of food.

Not only did native cooks use the three sisters in numerous types of dishes, ranging from roasts, stews, soups, dumplings, hominies, and breads, they also supplemented these with numerous vegetables, nuts, and fruits gathered from the wild. These included, wild potatoes, wild peas, chestnuts, hickory nuts, hazelnuts, acorns, wild grapes, cranberries, huckleberries, strawberries, blackberries, wild plums, gooseberries, blueberries, crab apples, and raspberries.

They tapped maple trees to harvest the sap, which they then boiled into syrup and sugar. They also harvested honey. These sugars were used to mix with corn bread, or to season meat. For example, they would infuse melted bear fat with a strong infusion of maple syrup and then dip roasted venison into it. And they made sweetened berry filled dumplings and frybreads.

Prepared foods were flavored with salt, wild onions, garlic, animal fats, and wild sugars.

The meats eaten by the Lenape varied from season to season. In the early spring and summer, they ate mostly fish, because the fin fish and shellfish were lighter and easier to digest in the hot, humid weather. From the rivers they caught shad, sturgeon, and alewives. From the marine and freshwater sources, they collected shellfish and crustaceans. From the marshes they hunted turtles, frogs, and snakes. In the Fall they turned to passenger pigeons (wild pigeons that are now extinct), ducks, geese, and other waterfowl, and turkeys. This explains how turkey became the signature Thanksgiving dish. When the Pilgrims invited the local tribe to share in their harvested bounty, the Native Americans contributed turkey and other fowl they had hunted. Racoon and rabbit were also hunted and trapped at this time. Then in late Fall and through winter, they hunted the larger game, including, elk, deer, black bear, and beaver.

All parts of the animals were used. Women tanned the skins to make clothing and containers, feathers became robes and ornaments, the sinew and gut was used for bindings, hooves for rattles and glue. The shells, horns, bones, teeth, and claws were made into tools and adornments.

Lenape made two kinds of corn bread:

Melinkweahpon (Corn-in-the-milk Bread) which was made from flour corn that was still in the milk stage. The corn was graded off the cob (about 60 to 70 ears) and mixed with salt (about 2 teaspoons) and then poured into a greased clay pot and baked in the coals for at least two hours, until golden brown. This bread was eaten fresh or could be dried in the sun for later use.

Kahahpon (Dried Corn-in-the-milk Bread) used dried and crumbled Melinkweahpon bread. Add 6 cups of cold water to a large pot. Then add 1 cup of dried Corn-in-the-milk bread and boil for one-half hour or until tender. When nearly done, season with the grease (about one tablespoon). Serve salted or sweetened with maple syrup.

The next two recipes came courtesy of Lenape Indian Cooking with Touching Leaves Woman.

Corn and Pumpkin

Pumpkin; 1 can (29 oz)

Whole kernel corn; 1 can (17 oz)

Maple syrup; ¾ cup

Pour the liquid off the canned corn. Mix the three items together. Be sure to use whole pack pumpkin and not pumpkin pie mix. Adjust the amount of maple syrup to taste. Boil slowly for about 5 minutes and serve.

Kohasik Wiyus

Ground meat; 1 lb.

Water; 5 cups

Honimy grits; 2 cups

Grease, if needed

Brown the meat, and if it has too much grease, drain it and set the meat aside. Boil the water. Add the grits and return to a boil. Lower the heat and cook 25 to 30 minutes, slowly, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and stir the meat into the grits.

Pour into two well-greased loaf pans (9 x 5 x 3). Cool and chill at least 4 hours, or overnight. Remove from pans in one piece, slice and fry.

In December, I plan to shift focus and look at some of the fascinating stories that I have come across during my research. One of the things I have always loved about studying history is that fact is often stranger than fiction. And in my experience, the best fantasy and science fiction stories are grounded in historical and cultural realities.

What special dishes do you look forward to eating each Thanksgiving? Reply to this email and let me know and I’ll tell you mine!

Take care and see you next month!

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