November 1991

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Our Indian Heritage

The Food Plants We Have Inherited


Alfred G. Hilbert

Thanksgiving Feast Menu

When we sit down at our traditional Thanksgiving dinner, with variations, it will consist of turkey with chestnut or oyster stuffing, squash, potatoes, cornbread and cranberries, topped off with pumpkin pie. There probably will be little in our thoughts of the people who first gave us these foods—there might be a mention of them in the decorations but even these are more apt to honor the Pilgrims rather than the Red Men, the Indians, the originators of the aforementioned foods. They were the original inhabitants of this great land of ours.

If we analyze the word "Thanksgiving," we find that "thank" and "think" come from the same word-root derivation, hence the giving of thanks is the result of thinking of the values received. Let us think then of the values received from the original inhabitants of our land.

With the discovery of America, many new vegetables cultivated and used by the Indians were introduced to the Old World and have since become food crops of enormous importance, and have spread throughout the world. Half of the total U. S. crop production, measured in dollars, comes from plants first used by Indians. A government study shows that 186, or 90%, of the world's basic foods are of American Indian origin.

Corn, which we consider a vegetable, is really a grass or cereal. It was known to the ancient peoples of Central and North America. Henry Hudson described it as "Turkish Wheat." There are a multitude of Indian legends as to its divine origin and use, for to the American aboriginals it was the staff of life and even called "Mother Corn."

The planting of corn was made into a religious ceremony. First, the seed was soaked in a thin mixture of water and wood ashes. With the seed in each hill was placed a small fish and the crushed bones of animals. This was to be symbolical of the respect of the spirit of the waters, of the animals and of the trees for Mother Corn. We, however, know that the nitrogen of the fish, the phosphate of the bone meal and the potash of the wood ashes gave vigor to the corn plant. With this knowledge and science, using chemical fertilizers with the same components, we in America have become the "bread basket of the modern world."

Both sweet and Irish potatoes are also Indian gifts, although neither plant is related. The sweet potato belongs to the Morning Glory family while the white potato belongs to the Nightshade family. The sweet potato (called balata by the Indians), probably the oldest American root crop, was an instant success in Europe and gave its name to both vegetables. For many years the white potato was considered poisonous by the Europeans because it belongs to the deadly Nightshade family. An English sailor gave Sir Walter Raleigh some potatoes which he planted on his estate in Ireland. When the food value was finally established, a big campaign to educate Europeans to their use was started. The main supply was obtained from Ireland, hence the name Irish potato. Potatoes now rate as the second largest food crop in the United States and the fourth in the world.

Egg plant, peanuts, string beans, kidney beans, lima beans, and scarlet runner beans all are native American plants. String beans were known in Europe as Indian beans but the English called them French beans. The Spanish brought back a bean from Peru. It is named "Lima" for the capital of Peru. The Aztecs and Mayas cultivated a plant called "tomatl." For years Europeans, and even some Americans, planted it as a decorative plant and considered it poisonous because, like the potato, it belongs to the Nightshade family. It was known for some time as "Love Apple." In Europe it was grown as a hog food and even as late as the turn of the century was not eaten by humans. In the United States is wasn't until 1820 that the fruit was publicly demonstrated to be nonpoisonous, while in Europe it was not eaten for another 100 years.

Squash, a short name for the Indian vegetable called Askuta, was used like pumpkins, which could be boiled, baked, and even made into soup. The seeds are delicious when roasted and salted. In addition, the blossoms were stewed, boiled, and, used for flavoring stews. Sunflower seeds were used for food and when crushed, the oil was used as we use vegetable oils.

The Capsicum or red pepper, cultivated by the Incas for centuries, has since entered the food list of the South Europeans. The sweet pepper or bell pepper, another member of the Nightshade family, was also an Indian contribution. The lowly peanut, another contribution, has developed into a food of tremendous economic importance, and now even a political symbol.

Walnuts, butternuts, chestnuts, wild grapes, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, plus blueberries and cranberries should be added to the list.

Let us not forget tobacco, which while not a food and now controversial, has had tremendous impact on our economy. To the Indians, tobacco was the sacred weed. It was not to be used as we use it today, but being a favorite of the gods, was used mainly for ceremonial purposes as incense for special gifts.

Tropical America gave us pineapples, avocados and cassava, plus chocolate, rubber and chicle for chewing gum.

Other foods include wild rice, pond lily roots, cattail roots, artichoke tubers, wild leeks and the many nuts and berries.

To the local Indians, corn, beans and squashes were the principal food. In Indian legend, they are often referred to as "The Three Sisters" for they were usually planted together. Early historians reported over a dozen varieties of corn, ten varieties of beans, and several varieties of squash and melons. Varieties were always planted separately, for when planted too close would "visit and establish colonies of their own."

Corn was used as soup, gruel, hominy, samp, hulled corn, corn bread, pudding and parched meal. These foods could also be mixed with beans, berries, nuts and sunflower oil. The Indian food Pemmican was deer or buffalo meat, dried and pounded into a powder and mixed with hot fat. For flavor, salt and dried berries were often added. This was the first concentrated dehydrated food. It could be kept indefinitely and would maintain life for days. Pemmican being very light and nourishing was the food taken by Peary on his dash to the North Pole. Even today explorers and hunters use a beef variety where food supplies are limited in quantity and weight. On the lightning fast raids of the Iroquois, their food consisted mainly of a pouch of parched corn and one of maple sugar, plus whatever natural food they could pick up en route.

When General Sullivan was sent into our area in 1779, one reason was to stop the border raids, but basically it was to raid and destroy the Indian granaries that were supplying the British Army. Central New York provided tremendous stores of fruits and vegetables, particularly corn and beans. Sergeant Moses Fellows, of Sullivan's Army reports on September 9, 1779, at Kanadesaga (Geneva) the army destroyed stores and plantings of corn, beans, peas, squashes, potatoes, onions, turnips, cabbage, cucumbers, watermelons, carrots, and parsnips. The following day at Kashong he reported the destruction of "corn, beans, vegetables, plus apple and peach trees." The food stores destroyed at Chemung a few days before our local battle of Newtown were very large, over 100 acres of corn. An estimated total of 100,000 bushels (200,00 bushels in some records) of corn were destroyed by this Sullivan expedition.

Richard Bagnal, an officer in this expedition, found a sweet corn amongst the Indian stores at Kashong on Seneca Lake just south of Geneva. Since ordinary Indian and Colonial corn was hard and flinty and had to be processed in some way, Bagnal took some of this sweet corn home to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to plant for his personal use. It was not until 70 years later, in 1850, that seed became plentiful enough to be distributed. It is interesting to note that today, almost 200 years later, the world center for the production of sweet corn seed is at Hall, New York, only 6 miles west of the original source, Kashong.

Other diaries report corn stalks 12 to 14 feet tall with ears 15 to 18 inches long (one man reported an ear of corn as big as his forearm). Farmer soldiers from New England stashed such corn in their knapsacks and when planted amongst the scrawny corn of the East Coast soon upgraded the size and quality of colonial corn.

Our festive dinners would not be complete without turkey. The early Spanish explorers in Mexico found an exotic food bird enjoyed by the natives. Sometimes it was served with a "chocolate sauce," a hot sauce composed of chili peppers and cocoa. They, called the bird "ugly peacock" or "royal peacock" and took some home. They soon became popular throughout Europe. The French called them "D'inde" (the bird of India); the Germans, "Truthahn"; and the Scandinavians still call it "Kalkon" (Calcutta chicken). Some say one Indian name was "Furkee." The word "Tukki" means large bird in Hebrew. There was a Spanish Jew with Columbus. It is possible his report gave the bird its name.

In England exotic birds were associated with the Orient. Turkey, was the only Oriental country well known at the time, so this strange bird came to be called "turkey."

Benjamin Franklin disagreed with the choice of the Bald Eagle as our national bird. He stated that the turkey was "of better moral character and the typical American bird."

I have left for last the most delicious foods of our Indian heritage—maple syrup and maple sugar. These staples of the Indians astounded and delighted the early settlers and foreign visitors to our shores. The earliest known white visitor to our Chemung Valley, Etienne Brulé, in 1615, reported eating a delicious food which, from his description, sounds like a kind of Carmel Corn. It may have been popcorn covered with maple syrup. The Indians also used sunflower oil with popcorn.

There are a multitude of syrup legends but I well tell you only two: In the ancient times, like today, there were women who rebelled at the household tasks. One such was particularly irked by the job of getting water from the spring. She felt her lazy husband could do this when he wasn't hunting or fishing. Her source of water was a spring that gushed from the ground at the base of a huge maple tree. She deliberately left her water container on the path to the spring at the base of the maple. She hoped that when her husband went to the spring for a drink he would stumble over the bucket, take the hint, and bring back a supply of water. He did stumble over the container, got the hint, and was so angered that he slammed his hatchet into the trunk of the maple above the container and stalked off. Since he had not returned with any water, she angrily went after the bucket herself. She found the container full of murky liquid that was dripping off the handle of the hatchet. To spite her husband she decided to use this liquid instead of water to cook his meal of corn and beans. To her surprise he was delighted with the flavor and she, in tasting, also was amazed. It has been said that as long as she could keep the secret, her cooking was the envy of the other women.

The most famous legend is that of Hiawatha. It is said that Nakomis, daughter of the Moon and grandmother of Hiawatha, accidentally cut the bark of a maple tree, and seeing the rich sap that poured from the gash, tasted it and found it delicious. Nakomis gave some to Hiawatha, he tasted it and was very pleased too, but immediately went forth to pour water over all the maples, thereby diluting the sap. He, in his infinite wisdom, foresaw that if the squaws were provided with such a delicious ready-made syrup, their life would become too easy and they would soon become lazy and useless.

© 1991, Alfred G. Hilbert
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