It was driven home on every field trip and every vacation that the ancient people, the Anasazi, and their descendants were very close to the land they lived on. Almost like a symbiotic co-existence. Fish, turkey, quail and wild game were the main courses. Texture came in the form of seeds, nuts and roots. Sugary sweetness came from berries, fruits and sap from trees. Fresh corn to dried corn to ground corn was used in cooking to add sweetness, thicken sauces and provide texture.
They reused almost every part of the wild game they hunted. Buffalo bladders were used as pouches to store and carry water. Buffalo stomach liners also served a similar purpose. I remember all the kids going yeow in unison and they each swore that they never would have drunk that water. Buffalo fat and even bear grease was used in cooking. Animal sinew was used to make bows and arrows and to tie sharp spearheads to long wooden spears.
Food was cooked in the most simple manner possible. Meat was boiled, roasted or baked in pits lined with charcoal. Seeds and nuts were eaten raw or they were toasted. Berries were ground into the meals. Seasoning, as we know it, was limited to wood ashes, salt, chiles and sharp berries.
Food often simmered for hours and in general, there was always enough food to welcome guests with. The native Americans ate according to the seasons, storing dried corn, seeds and nuts for use in harsh winters. During hunting season, there was always an abundant supply of fish and meat. Whatever could not be consumed immediately was cut into strips and either smoked or dried. Almost all meals were eaten directly out of the pot by hand and stews were eaten with a variety of breads.
The white man brought with him both disease and new influences. Native American food absorbed these new influences, without losing the simple earthiness of their food. The three recipes I tried were:
- Ute Tortilla, from the South West
- Mohegan Succotash, from the North East
- Pueblo Chicken, from the South West
These recipes are based on recipes from Spirit of the Harvest, North American Indian Cooking by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, a very well written book that delves deep into native American heritage: their food, their customs and some history.
Ute TortillaMost breads are fry breads and are an integral part of their cuisine. They are everyday food and they are also served at festive occasions like powwows. Fry bread is often served with some kind of sweetener, like berries, powdered sugar or honey. There are savory versions of fry bread with chopped onions and chillies mixed into the dough. The recipe varies from tribe to tribe but the ingredients remain essentially the same.
- 3 cups unbleached flour
- 2 tsp baking powder (3 tsp at high altitudes)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 and 1/2 cup warm water or milk
- 1 tbsp oil or shortening
- Combine all ingredients except for the oil and knead until smooth.
- Rub oil all over the dough and cover. Let this dough rest for about half an hour
- Divide the dough into 10-12 equal parts and either pat or roll out into a circular shape that is about 1/8 inch thick and about 6 inches in diameter.
- Cook these on charcoal grill or over open fire. I cooked these on a cast iron tava and then did the final roasting over the gas flame, where they puffed up almost like rotis.
- I used a half-and-half mix of unbleached white flour and whole wheat flour
- These Ute Tortillas tasted a lot like whole wheat pita bread.
- They complemented the succotash and the chicken very well.
- I tried patting these out but the dough kept springing back. So I rolled them out quickly and threw them on the tava, where they shrank even more!
Navajo Fry bread can be made using this same recipe. Instead of being cooked over an open fire, it is deep fried in oil. Based on the pictures in the book, you can get creative with the shape! I preferred to make Ute Tortillas for obvious reasons. Although given a chance, I would love to have Navajo Fry Bread, especially the savory kind!