By David C. King
[Adapted from Indians of the Berkshires and the Hudson River Valley]
The Berkshire Indians lived by farming, hunting, fishing and gathering—a combination that afforded them a tremendous variety of foods. Out of this natural larder they created a large and varied menu.
While the primary goal was survival, the people were also inspired by their passion for good food. Like Indian groups throughout North America, the Berkshire people wanted meals that offered variety, taste and careful preparation with just the right seasoning.
Corn, for example, was the basic staple and was used in a diverse range of meals. Probably the most common meal was a thick soup or stew based on corn, meat and water. The cook, almost always a woman, placed the corn and small pieces of meat with water in a tightly woven basket. (After trade with Europeans began in the early 1600s, iron kettles became the favored cooking utensil.)
As the stew cooked, she added foods that she thought blended in well—green beans, squash, mushrooms and root foods, like wild onions or wild potatoes.
Seasonings could include salt, wild mustard, garlic, dandelions and several herbs. The stew was prepared in the morning and was kept warm through much of the day, since most families preferred to eat whenever they were hungry rather than at a set time.
Corn was also mashed for making corn cakes, corn pudding, chowder, mush and succotash (corn and lima beans). Other uses of the ubiquitous kernels included corn-on-the-cob (raw, boiled or roasted) and popped corn (topped with maple syrup; this was probably the first caramel corn); corn was also bleached to create hominy.
The Berkshire region’s wonderful variety of fruits and nuts also were basic to the Indians’ recipes. Strawberries, blackberries, Juneberries, cherries, blueberries, grapes and raspberries were tasty, nutritious and had the advantage of ripening at different times from May to October. Berries were eaten raw or cooked; berries mixed with meat formed key ingredients in many recipes and sun-dried berries were used for winter months.
Nuts provided another basic source of nutrients, especially protein. Nuts common to the region included hickory nuts, walnuts, butternuts (also known as white walnuts), hazel nuts and chestnuts. The nuts were eaten raw, roasted or mashed for use in various preparations. Chestnuts, for example, were roasted or boiled, then pounded into a flour to be used to make bread or small cakes. Walnuts or butternuts were placed in boiling water and the oil that rose to the top was skimmed off to use as cooking oil.
The Mohican and other Berkshire tribes preserved as much food as possible to store for lean times. Fish catches were smoked and many foods were sun dried.
Pemmican, for example, was a common travel food made by tribes throughout North America. The basic ingredients—dried meat and dried fruit, held together by suet—was cut into squares or strips and could be stored for several months.
The Indians did face lean times and occasionally starvation. In late winter, however, they were often helped by the arrival of huge clouds of passenger pigeons, with millions of birds in a single landing. The pigeons literally covered the ground and trees over a wide area, making them easy to catch in nets or with sticks. The plump, tasty birds were rich in protein and could sustain a tribe for several weeks, much like the Biblical manna. (Passenger pigeons became extinct by 1920 because of commercial overkill.)
Although they faced some food problems, nothing ever dampened the Berkshire Indians’ enjoyment of a rich, tasty and varied menu.
David C. King is the author of more than 70 books for juvenile, young adult and adult readers. He specializes in American history and biography. He is best known for First People: An Illustrated History of American Indians, which has won four national awards. His Indians of the Berkshires is available at The Bookloft, Great Barrington; Oblong Books, Millertown, NY; Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge; or email DavidCKing@ taconic.net
Recipes of Berkshire Indian meals cannot be exactly reproduced because cooking utensils and methods are too difficult to duplicate. One typical recipe, for example, involved filling a birch-bark container with stew, then cooking it by dropping in red-hot stones to bring the ingredients to a boil.
With adjustments for modern cookware, here is a sampling of modified Indian recipes.