Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores the cuisines of different cultures across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Click here to read her column about Indian Cuisine and here to read her column about Nigerian cuisine.
Culture Tuesday – Native American Cuisine of North America
(Content/Trigger Warning: Reference to concentration camps, violence and starvation). Native American cuisine is the mother of modern-day cuisine even though, presently, it is one of the youngest cuisines. Originally, it involved solely cooking with ingredients that were exclusively found in the American continents. However, the cuisine evolved over the years due to colonisation and its caused historical events resulting in newer dishes being made for survival and the current neo-traditional Native American cuisine.
To understand the Native American cuisine of North America, it is important to break it down into four periods:
- The pre-Columbian
- European contact
Note: You’ll find recipes at the end of this article!
Pre-Columbian (from circa 8000BC till 1492AD)
“The Magic 8” – corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, chillies, cacao, and vanilla.
The cuisine of the Native Americans during this period included solely indigenous and wild ingredients – foods that existed before the European invasion. These ingredients form the basis of Native American cuisine till this day. They included those dubbed by, Culinary Anthropologist and Chef, Lois Ellen Frank (Kiowa Tribe), as “The Magic 8” – corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, chillies, cacao, and vanilla. These are the basic, or commonly used, ingredients that played great parts in developing the modern-day cuisines of many countries both during the colonial and post-colonial era.
without, and before, the colonisation of the Americas, the various cuisines of the world would have been vastly different
This means that without, and before, the colonisation of the Americas, the various cuisines of the world would have been vastly different. The U.K. would not have chips or roast potatoes, Indian and West African cuisines would not have chillies, French desserts would not contain vanilla or chocolate, and Italian cuisine would not contain tomatoes. These are almost unimaginable exclusions to the present-day traditional cuisine of these countries and regions.
They charred chillies in order to bring out their medicinal oils and flavours
The cooking methods of this period included boiling, drying, smoking, clay baking, steaming, charring and pureeing or mashing in order to make dishes, some of which are still eaten till this day and some of which for what is now known as the “soul food” of the southern Americans. They charred chillies in order to bring out their medicinal oils and flavours and wrapped foods in corn husks before encasing them in clay and placing them into fires to steam or bake the food. Although a lot of the foods were cooked or dried, fruits such as berries, papayas, avocados, and pineapples were often eaten fresh.
European Contact (between 1492 and the 1800s)
During the European invasion, the Europeans brought grains such as wheat to the Americas as well as non-vegan products (domesticated animal products and by-products). These were all things the Native Americans did not consume during the pre-colonial era and which were of less nutritional value than their traditional foods.
policies such as the Indian Removal Act (signed into law in 1830), making it illegal for Native Americans to practice their culture
As millions of European immigrants invaded North America, they sought land by pillaging, plundering, burning towns, and killing Native Americans. The United States government played a dominant role in this through the creation and implementation of policies such as the Indian Removal Act (signed into law in 1830), making it illegal for Native Americans to practice their culture and committing atrocities such as the Trail of Tears and The Long Walk.
These reservations were unsuitable for gathering or growing traditional food like the Native Americans were used to
The Trail of Tears, which occurred between 1830 and 1877, involved tens of thousands of Native Americans (members of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) Nations in the southeast being removed from their ancestral homelands and forced to march thousands of miles in harsh conditions resulting in the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people. Those who survived were confined to a designated ‘Indian Community.’ Over time, little by little, even the Indian Community was seized by the European invaders and the Native American tribes were forced unto the plots of land known as the ‘reservations’ to control them. These reservations were unsuitable for gathering or growing traditional food like the Native Americans were used to. This was the period when a lot of the traditional Native American cuisines from the aforementioned tribes were lost.
they were then confined to reservations with land unsuitable for growing or gathering traditional foods and they, too, lost a lot of their traditional cuisines
The Long Walk took place during the 1860s. During this tragic event, thousands of Navajo and Apache people were violently removed from their homelands by the U.S. military which carried out a Scorched Earth campaign. They burned the Navajos crops at Canyon de Chelly, a Navajo stronghold, as well as those of the Apache tribes and starved the people until they surrendered. Upon surrendering, they were forced to march to what was essentially a concentration camp in south-east New Mexico.
As the land within the concentration camp was unfit for farming, the Navajos and Apaches had no choice but to abandon their ancestral foods and survive off nutritionally deficient rations. As a result of this, thousand of Native American died of starvation and/or diseases. Eventually, those who survived were released by the U.S government, but like other tribes, they were then confined to reservations with land unsuitable for growing or gathering traditional foods and they, too, lost a lot of their traditional cuisines.
Government-issued (middle to late 1800s)
The government-issued foods for survival included ingredients like flour (wheat), coffee, salt, sugar and non-plant-based products in oil/fat or powdered form
As more people died from starvation and disease in the camps and reservations, the government issued starvation foods/military rations that were able to keep the Native Americans (barely) alive. The government-issued foods for survival included ingredients like flour (wheat), coffee, salt, sugar and non-plant-based products in oil/fat or powdered form. All of these were foods completely different from what the Native Americans were used to and far less in nutritional value than what they traditionally ate.
to some, it represents colonisation and dark experiences forced upon them by the European invaders
This period brought along the creation of fry bread. The recipe for fry bread was developed by the Elders using the government-issued foods (flour, salt, and water) to prevent people from perishing due to starvation. Although now traditional foods such as fry bread worked to keep the people alive, to some, it represents colonisation and dark experiences forced upon them by the European invaders. Therefore, there are Native Americans who strongly oppose eating it and do not consider it as part of their cuisine.
The surviving aspects of the Native American cultures were passed down through word of mouth. Being robbed of their land and forced into concentration camps then reservations led to the decimation of the Native American’s way of life and cultural traditions including culinary ones. Their past is echoed and reflected till this day through several reservations that are food deserts. There is a lack of food establishments in the reservations and the few supermarkets that do exist are 80% stocked with foods that have little to no nutritional value.
they still made strong efforts to connect with their ancestral practices through the knowledge of ingredients and food preparation methods passed down through generations
Over time, Native Americans adopted the cooking practices of the European invaders and their descendants although they still made strong efforts to connect with their ancestral practices through the knowledge of ingredients and food preparation methods passed down through generations. Therefore, new dishes have been created which use (solely or mostly) the traditional/indigenous ingredients but are cooked and present in less ancestrally traditional or untraditional ways (following European methods or those influenced by enslaved Africans) although some are still made following traditional methods.
These include dishes such as three sister stew (made with beans, corn and squash), cornbread, acorn bread, succotash (made with corn and beans), hominy, blueberry barbeque sauce, sofkee (cornmeal mush), kanuchi (pureed nut soup), grape dumplings, amaranth crackers, manoomin (wild rice) and berries with popped rice, braised sunflowers, refried beans, tortillas and roasted timpsula/turnip and winter squash with an agave glaze.
taking knowledge from the past, and the tools [they] have today, to move forward and break free from oppression
The Native Americans are, as Sean Sherman (Sioux Nation) said in a Food&Wine interview, “taking knowledge from the past, and the tools [they] have today, to move forward and break free from oppression and the poverty that’s been plaguing Indian country. [They’re] not going backwards in time to recreate foods from, like 1491.”
Neo-Traditional and Paleo-Traditional Recipes
Below are recipes for some traditional Native American dishes. They are the Navajo Tanaashgiizh/Blue Corn Mush (a porridge made from blue corn, juniper ash and water) Chickasaw Three Sister stew (a stew made from the Three Sisters – corn, beans and squash), Three Sisters Stuffed Squash and Minty Wild Rice Salad.
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- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Indian Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Nigerian Cuisine
- Culture Tuesday: 10 Vegan Nigerian Recipes You Need To Try
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