Today, I find myself…well, hungry.
Researching historical fiction can be tiresome work, but as I was editing some text late last night, I discovered something of interest. My stomach was growling -literally – from the descriptions I presented in my storyline. I thought I would share some amazing recipes I have uncovered while writing about the Lenni Lenape people. I am preparing to try out a few of these things in my own kitchen as well!
It is fairly well-known that the early Native American diet – eastern woodland to be more specific – was centered around the basic groups of corn, squash, and beans. These items were known as the Three Sisters, and formed the base of a well-rounded diet supplemented with lean meats. It sounds rather bland, in theory. How much can be done with corn, beans, and chewy game meat over an open fire…really? The story-teller in me thought it might be wise to dress it up a bit, throw away the bland part, and make it sound really tantalizing.
Yet, the more I researched and wrote about the topic of feasts, dances, and all manner of culinary delights that my characters might find there, the more my inner gourmet was tickled and teased. It sounded incredibly mouth-watering, and I did not even need to embellish my writing! Here’s a sample of what I am talking about:
“It was time for the feasting to begin. There were various seasoned and slowly roasted meats and smoked trout to chose from. Tiny golden corncakes had been wrapped in leaves and baked slowly in the embers then sweetened with maple sugar, and they instantly melted in the mouth. There were herb soups, baked squashes, fried beans, puddings seasoned with berries, and a variety of steamed greens to select from. Katari could not even mount an attempt to sample it all.”
Hey Katari, could I perhaps try the melty corncakes sweetened with pure maple sugar, please?
I have read a lot about the use of venison, as it was a valuable source of lean protein and nourishment for the Native peoples of the time. But why does it not sound like an enticing dish to place in a scene that I plan to make sparkle with romance? Honey, have a hunk of deer meat. Hmm.
“The delectable scent of wild onions and garlic complemented the roasting venison. Jenna had collected some excellently flavored wild mushrooms, fresh tiny root potatoes, and hearty chestnuts to round out the pottage. The curling rumble of her stomach was testament to just how well it was coming along. She dipped her longest bone ladle into the pot, and stirred the bubbling contents diligently. The dance was quickly approaching.”
Umm, Jenna, perhaps I could come along too? I will take a bowl! The point is, taking the time to thoroughly research menus and place them into your writing will set the historical scene like nothing else. The reader’s discovery that he or she might just love to sample such a meal adds validity and ‘pop’ to your tone. The reader is placed at the scene, and smells, sees, and just about tastes all the marvelous things you have described.
Healthy Native Recipes to Try in Your Own Kitchen
I have collected and adapted a few recipes that can fit into your traditional kitchen with materials that you can locate in your grocery store – you won’t need to go collecting in the forest, although that is likely half the fun!
Sa’Pan (Corn Hominy)
In my Native American novels, I make reference to a dish made from cornmeal that was a daily staple for Eastern Algonquin tribes such as the Lenni Lenape. The trick was how a woman baked it – and the special ingredients she added to give it extra sweetness and flavor. Berries – dried or in season – were an excellent addition, as well as pure, sweet maple syrup. This recipe is low in sodium, low in cholesterol, and high in the essential nutrient manganese.
1 cup blue or white cornmeal
1 cup cold water
2 cups boiling water
A dash of salt
3 tablespoons dried blueberries (or your favorite fruit – fresh works as well)
1 tablespoon butter (or lard – Lenape would have used animal fat)
maple syrup to taste
1. Mix the cornmeal and cold water.
2. Bring the rest of the water to a boil; stir in the cornmeal mixture and salt. Add the blueberries.
3. Lower the heat and slowly cook it uncovered for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. When it’s nearly done cooking, stir in the ghee until mixed and then beat the sa’pan to a smooth texture and serve topped with maple syrup.
OJAWASHKWAWEGAD (Algonquin Wild Green Salad)
The ingredients of this particular salad are off the charts as far as a health rating goes – watercress and dandelion are two of the most nutrient-dense greens that you can find. No wonder the Europeans described the Eastern Native Americans they encountered as a tall, hearty people of both amazing strength and longevity.
1 cup Wild onions OR leeks/shallots, well chopped
4 cups Watercress
1/4 cup Sheep or wood sorrel
1 1/2 cup Dandelion leaves
1/3 cup sunflower seed oil
1/3 cup cider vinegar
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
3/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Toss together the salad greens. Combine the dressing ingredients and mix well. Lightly toss the salad in the dressing and serve. Your body is already thanking you.
Lenape Venison Stew
There are a plethora of was to create a winning venison stew or “pottage” as I sometimes refer to it my writing, but I will list one here that was passed down by an Eastern Pennsylvania Lenni Lenape family and would be much like a stew found within a Jessica Leigh historical novel. Venison is a protein and iron-rich, yet low-fat staple of Native diets. If you aren’t a hunter – or friends with one – you could substitute bison meat, which is also lower in fat than our common grain-fattened beef cattle of today.
2 deer steaks or 1 bison roast, cut up
Wild garlic and leeks or shallots, 2 large of each
Wild mushrooms (or any store bought variety of your choice)
1 cup of flour for thickening and coating
Wild root potatoes (native groundnut) or substitute regular white potatoes
One handful of hazelnuts, hickory nuts, or chestnuts
Sunflower oil (can substitute vegetable)
Salt and pepper to taste
Sprinkle enough flour to thoroughly coat the cut up deer or bison chunks. In a cast-iron skillet, heat oil and pan fry the meat, leeks, garlic, potatoes. Add the nuts in last. Brown everything well for the best flavor. Add a little water to create a bubbling gravy. After meat is cooked through, turn to low heat to simmer while preparing your pie crust. Fill crust with stew and back at 350 degrees until the crust is light brown.
Are you willing to try the original “All American” meal? Let me know how it turns out for you! My new goal is to identify and collect wild watercress in the woodlands behind my home. I am hungry for that salad!
Feel free to leave some comments below, or check out my latest novel Savage Journey!
About the Author:
Jessica Leigh is an emerging author in the romance field, and still holds her “day job” as a free-lance writer/PR specialist for a social media marketing firm. She is also an Environmental Scientist and researcher with a degree from Penn State University. Her first historical romance release, Savage Forest, delves deep into the Native American cultural heritage of the eastern seaboard, and chronicles the life and death struggle of a feisty young Swedish immigrant thrust into a native way of life unknown to her. The sequel, Savage Journey, was newly released in June of 2014. Jessica’s 2014 contemporary romantic suspense release, Waiting for Eden, is also available on Kindle.
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