Native Americans had their own cuisine established before the arrival of Europeans. Most tribes were hunting cultures and meats included bison, rabbit, deer and caribou, as well as various species of fish and birds. Wild fruits and nuts were harvested locally. But agriculture thrived in certain cultures. Maize was used over the continent. Other domestically grown crops included beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, wild rice and potatoes. Breads of one kind or another were staple foods.
Corn bread was the most widely made bread. The basic recipe was ground maize, or cornmeal, as well as water and salt. Honey was added, if it was available. Some tribes had clay ovens in which to bake it. Others baked it in hot ashes, which is why the early settlers called it ash-cake. With the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans were able to add new ingredients to corn bread, including sugar, molasses and bacon fat.
Beans were as common as maize throughout North America. Native Americans referred to beans, corn and squash as the Three Sisters. Varieties of beans included pinto beans, kidney beans, string beans, butter beans, mesquite beans and pole beans. The beans could either be boiled and mashed, or ground into a flour, to make bean bread. The beans were mixed with cornmeal and water and the bread was traditionally formed into balls and boiled in water.
Before settlers cut down many of the standing oak trees, acorns were a major part of Native American food supply. Acorns could be gathered and stored for winter. They were ground into flour. To make acorn bread, the acorn flour was mixed with cornmeal or cattail flour, and mixed with water and salt. Honey was added if available. Acorn bread was baked the same way as cornbread. Since introduced to the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, it has become a Thanksgiving treat.
Fry bread was first used by the Navajo tribe in the 1850s during a time of starvation and unrest. It has since spread throughout Native American culture and is commonplace at gatherings. Some consider it a symbol of cultural survival. Fry bread is basically made by mixing flour, salt, baking soda and milk. Ingredients vary by tribe and may include butter and sugar. The dough is formed into balls and fried in vegetable oil in a hot skillet.
Brian Burhoe has been writing professionally since 1971. His stories have appeared in "World of If Magazine," "Fantastic Stories" and "Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year." He cooks in Atlantic Coast restaurants and he is a graduate of the Holland College Culinary Course and holds a Canadian Culinary Federation chef's certificate.