Native Foods I

Most of us know that the European invaders of America learned about native foods from the Indians and, in fact, depended upon them. But we forget the sheer quantity: 75% of the food plants we eat today were unknown to Europeans 500 years ago! Before the Spanish and English ever came to the new World the Native Americans had domesticated and hybridized more than 150 varieties of corn, 400 varieties of potatoes and almost countless varieties of beans. Squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, peanuts, pepper, chocolate and vanilla are among the other foods first domesticated by the high Indian civilizations of Central and South America; the great triad, the “life‐giving sister,” corn, beans and squash, found their way north to become food staples of the Indians, and, hundreds of years later, of the European inhabitants of New England.

But what of the wild plants? I will start here with the trees which provided a large share of the food now scarcely used since most of the Indians have gone and the remnants have adopted European food habits. Consider the beech: If you have the patience to gather the small nuts they are one of the tastiest delights of the woods: they can be eaten raw, roasted or ground to make a caffeine‐free coffee, or powdered into a nutritious flour. The Indians made nut‐cakes of such flour with cornmeal added. The batter could be fried in deep fat or roasted over hot coals and then given extra flavor with maple syrup. That is not all the bounty of the beech tree. The Iroquois, and very likely their Mohican neighbors, dried and ground the inner bark to make bread. In addition, the new leaves in the spring could be cooked and eaten as greens.

The beech is not the only tree with edible bark. The Iroquois called the Hurons “Hadirondacks” (tree eaters), and early travelers reported the reason: whole groves of pine trees stripped of their bark for this purpose. A shipload of sailors dying of scurvy were saved by New England coastal Indians, who restored the sailors’ vitamin C balance with the inner bark of pine trees, at a time when Europeans were still ignorant of the dietary cause of this dread disease.

Tons of acorns scatter to the ground every fall and were once a staple wild food used by the Indians from coast to coast. Our sixty native species of oak are made up of two families, white and red: the acorns of all are high in food value. White oak acorns can be eaten raw or prepared in the ways described for beechnuts. Red oak acorns are bitter and toxic and require soaking to leach out the tannin. They should be dried and ground and then steeped in a succession of water baths until they taste sweet.

Walnuts and butternuts are more familiar additions to this roster of native American wild nuts, and valedictory mention should be made of the once abundant chestnut. All of them can be made into nut “milk” by pounding in a mortar with a little water added. This can be used as a seasoning with other foods or boiled into a fragrant soup. Nut oil was obtained by boiling the ground meats and skimming the oil from the surface. It was used, as was maple syrup, to season vegetables, pot herbs and meats. After centuries of sweetening their foods it took the Indians a long time to appreciate the European habit of seasoning with salt.



— David P. McAllester (1916‐2006), a one‐sixty‐fourth Narragansett, was a Navaho scholar and professor of anthropology and music at Wesleyan University. Living in Monterey, Mass., he wrote Indian Notes for the monthly Monterey News from 1981 to 1994. This essay originally appeared in the newsletter November 1984.