Peeler crabs shed around a full moon; plant vegetable seeds after May 10; plant rows north to south; yellow perch run early in February. These are just a few native wisdoms about food I heard growing up. Over the years, I’ve followed this sage advice and other local knowledge and generally the information passed on to me has been proven over time to be true. But how did these truthful tidbits become known? Who figured this out?
Long before science was a named field of study found in textbooks and classroom experiments, it existed without a name. Over long spans of time, human beings observed nature and took mental notes. They experimented with ideas about the world around them, adapted to nature’s rhythms in a way that benefited them. I am talking about the complex evolution of survival and the transference of survival knowledge from one generation to another. Nature was the lab and we were the observers of what grew where and when, which plants were edible, and what animals migrated at what times. This primal fixation on food source was necessary to live. We learned, we survived, we passed it on. Now, living in an age where Google is so convenient, much of our information doesn’t come from our elders, but from the internet. In some ways, fast information is helpful but it also disconnects us from other humans.
When I think about baking, I contemplate who was that special someone that figured out crushed grain, water, and yeast when heated to a certain temperature turned into bread? Who conceptualized this science experiment? Bread is one of the most basic survival foods next to wild berries on the vine, and someone figured it out, and then passed that knowledge on. Scientists have discovered the earliest known evidence of bread-making from a 14,000-year-old dig site, but obviously no inventor’s name was left behind. Who invented beer? Archeologists have unearthed ceramic vessels from 3400 B.C. still sticky with beer residue – but the true origin of beer is still speculative. The origin of the practice of nixtamalization is murky too. This is the process of treating maize (corn) with alkaline to transform the nutrients into a more easily digestible form allowing humans to absorb the nutrients. Without the knowledge of this process, malnutrition is only a matter of time. This happened when corn was introduced to Europe. Christopher Columbus may have brought this grain back from the Americas to Europe, but he did not bring the Aztec’s knowledge of nixtamalization with him. Large populations that attempted to subsist on the maize experienced rampant malnutrition called pellagra, leading to death. Sadly, this also happened in the South during the Great Depression. How did ancient peoples know how to treat corn in a way that made it more nutritious?
So far, I’ve asked a lot of questions and have provided no answers. Sometimes, there are no answers to questions about our culinary past. Native Americans have long been known for their wisdom about the natural world and applying that knowledge to live in a resourceful and meaningful way. Their culture is an example of the study of nature and accumulations of a wealth of observations over time. Many Native American planting techniques are used today because they work, and because they utilize nature to its fullest.
The three sisters, a synergistic farming technique developed by Native Americans, consists of three plants: beans, corn and squash. By planting this combination, each plant supports the other in a way that makes each plant reach its potential. Beans work with bacteria in the soil. The bacteria take in nitrogen from the air and feed the nitrogen to the beans. In return, the bean plant provides carbohydrates to the bacteria. Corn provides support for the bean vines and squash covers the ground, which helps maintain moisture while at the same time deterring hungry animals with its prickly stems. However, there is a fourth sister that is just as important.
According to a Rodale Institute article: “The three sisters and that fourth sister no one talks about.” The fourth sister, sister sunflower (or sister bee balm) adds additional support for the beans, lures birds away from the corn with her delicious seeds and with her pollen attracts insect pollinators. One could argue that the sunflower serving as a beacon might be the most important sister of all.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians live adjacent to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and are for the first time in a century harvesting “Sochan,” a relative of the sunflower. In a fascinating Smithsonian article entitled “Cherokee Harvest: For the first time, American Indians are being allowed to pick a cherished plant inside a National Park,” Native American plant knowledge shines throughout the pages, enlightening park technicians about plants, their uses and how to sustainably harvest them. This knowledge has been a part of the Cherokee culture for many generations. In the article, Sampson, a tribal member, prepares Sochan with its traditional accompaniment, lye dumplings – boiled corn cakes. Sochan says, “Food culture, language culture, spiritual culture, it’s all connected.”
A recent article in Eating Well magazine features a story about a sea garden restoration project that is underway on the west coast guided by age old traditions of the WSANEC Leadership Council, an indigenous advocacy group. Many clam beaches that stretch up and down the west coast have been tended to by native peoples for at least 3,500 years. During this time, they have rolled large rocks into the sea to change the tidal height of the beach above it.
These ringed offshore rock walls that remain submerged most of the year, “… are living practices that people have been engaging in continuously for thousands of years,” explains Sky Augustine, a marine ecologist and member of the Stz’uminus Nation who is studying this work as a Doctoral Candidate at Simon Frazer University. “One thing I think is really important is the two-way learning between scientists and First Nation elders. I see people with a large degree of humility who are working hard to listen carefully to each other and to what we see on the land.”
Local Native American Robin Tyler, a member of the Tuscarora tribe of North Carolina, recently shared with me some of the wisdoms of her upbringing. “Nothing went to waste, everything was used or found a purpose, just as when animals are killed – all of it was used, the meat, the bones, the hide, even the tail. Oxtail soup and turnip soup were always eaten before winter to build up immunity.”
Very important to her tribe is the use of smoke as a medicine. For respiratory health they use wild hops, mullein, and flat cedar. Calming smoke is made of rose petals, chamomile and mullein. Of course, this wisdom was passed down from her father who learned it from his elders and so on. She also shared with me a recipe for fry bread that her father used to make. It was remarkably similar to a “turn cake” that my friend Mr. Brown, of Trappe, remembers from childhood. As fate would have it, Robin and Mr. Brown happened to meet in my driveway and connected over stories of childhood bread making and discovered they both dipped their breads in molasses and butter. They are from two different cultures and grew up in two different places, but bread was a comforting commonalty. Culture is truly illuminated through interaction; discovery and discussions amongst each other unite us. Funny thing happened when I perused my cookbooks, I found neither “turn cake” or “fry bread.” I couldn’t find “turn cake” on the internet either, proving Google doesn’t have all the answers.
Interactions with native peoples, hunters, fishermen, gardeners and the cooks in our lives can provide a deeper explanation as to why we do what we do and how, in a way, we are all interconnected. This free exchange of useful and meaningful information between people benefits mankind, in that those who share their knowledge provide each other with tidbits for better survival, better lives, and a more enriching life experience. Every human being needs sustenance – not just for our bodies but for our minds – we need connection, and I cannot think of a better way to connect than to discuss food, share recipes, show someone how to scale a fish, knead bread or start a garden. Will people remember what you share or show? They will, because human engagement is a very powerful memory maker. It’s a beautiful kind of wisdom, and there is no app for that.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Daddy’s Fry Bread
2 cups flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
4 TBS shortening
1 cup cold buttermilk
Combine all dry ingredients. Add shortening and mix with hands until it looks like bread crumbs. Make a well in the center and add buttermilk. Mix until dough comes together; it will be sticky. Turn dough on to floured surface and gently turnout over itself five or six times. Try to work quickly. The more you handle the dough the tougher it gets. Press dough into buttered or oiled frying pan. Fry until browned on both sides.
Resources and Readings
Henion, Leigh Ann. “Cherokee Harvest. For the first time, American Indians are being allowed to pick a cherished plant inside a national park.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2019, pp. 22-24.
J.K. “Protecting Coastlines with an Age-Old Tradition.” Eating Well magazine, April 2021, pp. 68-69.
Scientists discover oldest evidence of bread: