Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Spirit, If Not The Letter, Of The "Harvest"

The third, and last, of my food-book Christmas presents is one from which I have gotten some practical use. The book in question is:
Jacobs, Martin & Cox, Beverly. Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking. Stewart Tabori & Chang (1991).
Unlike the other two books I received and have written about, Spirit of the Harvest is a gorgeous coffee-table style book, with lovely, full page, full-color illustrations of some of the dishes for which recipes have been provided. 

Like the authors of the other historical food books I have reviewed over the past few weeks, Ms. Cox and Mr. Jacobs have had to deal with the issue of how to ascertain what foods were eaten by the peoples in question.  In some ways, their research was simplified by the fact that many North American Indian tribes are still in existence and still vigorously maintain a tribal identity.  On the other hand, Indians' lives have changed dramatically since white Europeans began to settle in North America.  How can one separate what Indians cook and eat now from what they must have cooked and eaten before the white man came? 

Inuit bannock bread (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Ms. Cox and Mr. Jacobs have chosen not to try to make such a separation in their book.  While the text acknowledges that certain food stuffs now used by the Indians were brought to the New World, and introduced to Indian cuisine, by Europeans, it does not attempt to recreate exactly what the Indians ate before contact with whites, let alone set out a chronology of when certain recipes may have originally been made or eaten.  Instead, they have consulted Indian sources for recipes that are still made, and have supplemented that information with knowledge, gathered by scholars in the field, relating traditional cooking methods and foods and noting how European foods came to be introduced to particular tribes or geographical areas. 

The result is an extremely interesting book that conveys a strong impression, not just what Indian recipes are like now, but what they must have been like over the slow advance of history.  It gives the best answer to the question "what is the cuisine really like?" than the other books I have recently read, though unlike the books I have recently reviewed about  ancient Greek and Egyptian cuisine it does not attempt to provide a scholastic review of its subject.

Part of the way the authors do this is by having deliberately selected recipes that feature ingredients that are not only New World, but are found and eaten primarily by Indians from a particular region.  For example, there are a number of recipes requiring acorn flour.  One purportedly Comanche recipe is for fried frog's legs (p. 127).  Other recipes with ingredients not readily available in supermarkets include Serviceberry Upside-Down Cake (p. 136), Pueblo Fried Squash Blossoms (p. 152), Papago Cactus Salad (p. 154), and Pueblo Pumpkin-Pinon Bread (made with the seeds of the pinon pine tree) (p. 169).  There are a number of recipes that use maple syrup as a flavorant, including one that uses it in a dressing for greens (Wild Watercress Salad, p. 66).  Skillet breads and bannocks also turn up (though not the exact one in the photograph above, which I include out of concern for using an image from the book, which contains a "no use of any content from this book without prior written authorization" notice). 

Because many of the recipes in this book are mostly modern in ingredients and cooking procedures, they are less intimidating, and I have tried two of them so far.  The first one I tried was "Hopi Venison Stew" (p. 178).  Though I can obtain venison, I had none handy when I decided to make the recipe so I substituted grass-fed beef.  That may have been a mistake.  The recipe was to include chili peppers, but the chilis I found in my supermarket were so mild that the recipe turned out quite bland.  My husband and I resorted to scooping pre-made adobo sauce into the finished product to make the flavor more interesting. 

The second recipe is called "Elk Stew with Acorn Dumplings."  Since the friend who gave me the book had tracked down and included a small bag of acorn flour, I thought I should try a recipe that included this ingredient.  Lacking elk, I substituted beef (which the book suggests as a potential alternative).  The other ingredients are four slices of fried bacon, onion, potatoes, carrots, a turnip, bay leaves, a small amount of the acorn flour, and some salt.  (I did not attempt the dumplings, this time.)  The result was a fairly undistinguished beef stew; filling enough, but unexciting.  The acorn flour gave the stew a slightly thicker consistency and a pleasant, mild, nutty flavor. 

My experiments have given me a very strong impression of North American Indian cuisine.  It strikes me as a cuisine in which the cooks had to be very inventive in using whatever ingredients were at hand to give the foods available to them interesting flavors.  That fact alone makes it clear why the Indians were receptive to adopting the new foods brought by white settlers (peaches, for example--see page 193)--they were eager for the potential for variety such foods provided.  Indian food before European settlement may well have been plentiful, even tasty, but what this book suggests to me is that it did not have the variety of different kinds of flavors and foods we're used to.  It may even not have had the variety of flavors found in European cuisine during the Roman Empire or the Middle Ages.  I'm still thinking about the implications of that conclusion.

I will probably experiment further with the recipes in this book.  If I do, I will report on any interesting taste experiences that result.


  1. Salutations, Cathy !
    Serviceberries may not be in the supermarket, but there are serviceberry bushes on the Univ of Pennsylvania campus, and around Sycamore Park in Lansdowne (near my old place). Would make a small bet there are some in Malvern, too. If you want to drive around in June, I'll point them out (and help you pick some (in exchange, of course, for some of the shortcake)).

    Yours, John Desmond

  2. Really? Does the plant in the picture at the following URL look like what you had in mind?

    I got the impression that serviceberries primarily grow in places north and west of here from the Cox and Jacobs book, but I could of course be wrong.

  3. Hello again !

    Your question - Yes. See also:

    Fresh off the vine, they taste, as I remember, like a combination of fresh currants, tart cherries, and blueberries. YMMV

    Yours, John

    1. They sound interesting, but the plant looks unfamiliar to me.

      I'm certain none grow in my backyard, though they may grow somewhere in Malvern. However, as you noted, there are lots of deer in our area so finding wild ones would be problematic. The short season (maybe due to the fact that this is a bit south of their normal growing range?) would also complicate finding wild ones. But thanks for the URLs.

  4. Would also add that serviceberries are in season here for only 3 weeks or so, right before July 4th.

    A couple of the websites mention that deer really like them - the fruit and the rest of the plant as well - that may be the biggest problem growing them 'in your yard'

  5. May 31st, and the serviceberries are ripening. Should you be in Moorestown, NJ, there are a couple of small serviceberry trees (or _really_ big bushes) at the corner of Main and Church, in front of, IIRC, 'NovaCare Physical Therapy'


    Will try to get photos.

  6. It's unlikely that I'll be driving all the way to Moorestown anytime soon. But photos would be great! Thanks.