Indigenous food is booming, and the rediscovery of native foods has piqued the interest of chefs and restaurants around the country. On April 15, 2022, Jacque Siegfried', a Shawnee citizen, founded Nātv in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, a restaurant reintroducing southeast Native American food but with a modern flair (Boston, 2022). Similarly, inspired by the Cherokee moon calendar, Chef Jordan Rainbolt launched a pop-up business called Native Root, combining traditional ingredients with modern cuisine. Rainbolt's well-known dinner series has allowed her to reconnect with her Cherokee and Choctaw heritage by exploring a wide range of Native American culinary traditions (Ginsburg, 2022).
In terms of Native cuisine, many of us may indulge in a good ol' Indian Taco, a combination of frybread, bean, cheese, and sour cream; who wouldn't? The dish has become a significant staple in tribes around the United States, especially for the Cherokee, which can be found served at many community events such as the Cherokee National Holiday and, on occasion, at traditional ceremonies. However, as much as we love this riveting dish, in reality, our favorite Indian Toco is not a traditional Native American dish. What began in the mid19th century, the Indian Taco was a sustenance created from the United States government ration of lard, flour, salt, and baking powder (Mikles, 2009).
Traditionally, Cherokee cuisine commonly consisted of a combination of wild game such as deer, bears, fish, squirrels, and rabbits, along with gathered or grown foods like mushrooms, ramps, nuts, beans, squash, and most importantly, corn. Traditionally and even today, corn is considered one of the most essential and sacred foods within Cherokee culture. A tradition that has existed since pre-contact is the harvest of corn, known as Green Corn, a ceremony that is present in many ceremonial Stomp Grounds to this day. Along with harvesting this delicious delicacy, corn is a versatile staple and has been used to create a number of dishes that many know today, such as cornbread. But is that it? No! It is common to believe that one can only create solid food from corn. However, the Cherokees were very creative and traditionally would develop a variety of dishes, for example, the Corn Drink. There are several variations to the corn drink, a primary beverage of Southeastern Tribes in both historic and prehistoric periods. The beverage's origin is believed to have come from an opening in the sky and was offered as a gift for the people (Traditional Cherokee Food). It does not stop here, and if you want to try out some traditional dishes at home, check out some recipes below and begin your adventure with Cherokee cuisine!
So, for today's story, let's dive back into the deep thickets of the smokey mountains and follow the journey of the origins of corn in Cherokee country.
Legend of the Three Sisters
Once upon a time there were three sisters. The first sister was very tall and strong; her name was Corn Girl , and she wore a pale green dress and had long yellow hair that blew in the wind. Corn Girl liked to stand straight and tall, but the longer Corn Girl stood in her field , the hungrier she got. And every day more weeds were growing up around her feet and choking her.
The second sister was very thin and quick and fast, and her name was Bean Girl , but she wasn't very strong. She couldn't even stand up on her own. She was good at making food , but she just had to lie there stretched out on the ground, and she would get dirty and wet, which wasn't good for her. The weeds bothered her too because she was not strong enough to keep them away.
The third sister, Squash Girl , was short and strong. She liked to wander along the ground. She wore a yellow dress. She was stronger than the weeds and so they did not bother her. But the strong sun scorched her leaves. She was hungry too.
For a long time, the sisters didn't get along. They each wanted to be independent and free, and not have anything to do with the other two. So Corn Girl stood there with her feet hurting and got hungrier and hungrier. And Bean Girl lay there on the ground fighting the weeds without success, and just got dirtier and wetter. And the little sister Squash Girl was hot and hungry too.
So Bean Girl talked to her sister Corn Girl and said, "What if I feed you some good food, and you can hold me up so I don't have to lie on the ground and get all dirty?" And Corn Girl thought that was a great idea. Then little Squash Girl called up to her tall sister, "How about if I lie on your feet and protect them from the weeds?" Corn Girl thought that was a great idea too. Bean girl needed protection from the weeds too and she offered to give Squash Girl food in return for weed protection. Both Corn and Bean Girls promised to shade Squash Girl's leaves from the hot sun.
So the Three Sisters learned to work together, so that everyone would be healthier and happier. Corn Girl helped Bean Girl stand up. Bean Girl fed Corn Girl and Squash Girl good food. And Squash Girl protected her two sisters from the weeds from growing up around them all.
Story from North Carolina Museum of History
1 cup meal
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
2 cups milk (If using butter-milk or clabber add about 1/2 teaspoon baking soda)
1/4 cup melted shortening or oil
1 egg, beaten
The Corn Drink
Using mature, dry corn, parch about a cup of grains in a heavy iron skillet over low heat, of parching will affect the flavor, so some experimenting needs to be done to see how dark you like your corn to be parched.
Put the parched corn in a mortar and pound it as you would kanuchi. When the corn is pounded into a very coarse meal, cool it in water until it is done, about 30 minutes. Start with three cups of water and add more if it begins to thicken too much. This, too, is a matter of taste. Add a bit of salt.
Disclaimer: Recipes were taken from the work Traditional Cherokee Food, published by Cross Cultral Education Center, Inc.
Mikles, Natalie. “Indian Tacos Are Rich in Fat, History.” ICT, ICT, 28 June 2009, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/indian-tacos-are-rich-in-fat-history#:~:text=Indian%20tacos%20were%20born%20of,homes%20and%20at%20pow%20wows.
Ginsburg, Eric. “Chef Jordan Rainbolt Is Uncovering the Native Root of Southern Food.” Life & Thyme, https://lifeandthyme.com/food/chef-jordan-rainbolt-is-uncovering-the-native-root-of-southern-food/.
Boston, Stacie. “NĀTV Offers Indigenous Cuisine with a Modern Flair.” ICT, Cherokee Phoenix, 1 July 2022, https://indiancountrytoday.com/lifestyle/n%C4%81tv-offers-indigenous-cuisine-with-a-modern-flair.
Corn - Freepik
Three Sisters - Garlan Miles