• Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • A 10-Year Stroll

    A 10-Year Stroll

    With hundreds of spectators lining Main Street in Brattleboro, the groomed and bedazzled heifers are led down the center of the street to the cheers of onlookers. Hundreds of cows preen for the delighted crowd, followed by more farm animals (bulls, goats, and horses), tractors (also decorated for the parade) floats, clowns, marching bands, street performers, and all manner of groups touting their various farm affiliations.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • After the Fire

    After the Fire

    Barn’s burnt down…now I can see the moon. –Chinese proverb

    Yet the converse is also true: Yes, we can see the moon, but it won’t shelter tractors, nor can vegetables be washed, packed, and stored inside its lovely glow. Oh, the moon is beautiful, but what can it do for food and a business after the fire is put out?

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The First Localvores

Vermont’s early Abenaki ate many of the same local foods we do today

Illustration of winter squash

Written By

Lisa Harris

Written on

December 01 , 2010

I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home. How could I have known then that I would one day be interested in learning about what foods the Abenaki ate and are still enjoying today? Through my exploration of Abenaki food traditions, I’ve since found that there are similarities between my own family food history and that of the Abenaki, such as the reliance my grandparents had on hunting and fishing for their meals, the excitement my brother, mother, and I had while foraging for wild morel mushrooms, catching fish and crayfish at our summer campground, and watching maple syrup being made from tapped trees.

I moved to Vermont to attend the New England Culinary Institute in 1997—just about the time that eating local entered the mainstream. Localvore groups were just beginning to sprout up around the state and reminded me of my earlier interest in eating wild and local foods. I wondered: how did eating local come about? Was this a new way to look at what and how we eat? Why did it seem so familiar? My own interest in local food began to shift from the hype and buzz of localvorism and eat local campaigns to exploring the foods of the people who first inhabited this land.

My cookbook collection took a new turn, as I began to seek out Native American ingredients, recipes, wild edible guides, and books. I found information about the influence of food from the Americas, plant medicines, and Native chefs. But many of the cookbooks I found focused more on the foods of the Plains people, the Midwest tribes, and those of the southwest.

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What I did eventually learn about the Abenaki is that they moved with the seasons, traveling around to the different hunting, gathering, and gardening grounds as conditions and food became available. Some of this is still done today by Abenaki and non-Abenaki in Vermont who engage in maple sugaring in the spring, return to hunting camps in the fall, and tend gardens in the summer.

For the Abenaki, springtime was the time for tapping maple and birch trees to catch the precious sap in bark buckets. The sap would be boiled by placing hot rocks from the fire directly into the sap in earthenware pots, making sugar cakes and granular sugar—the best way the maple could be stored and transported during the rest of the year. Early season greens like wild onions, fiddleheads, and probably nettles were also gathered by the women, along with groundnuts, which provide valuable starch and protein in the early spring.

Todd Hebert is an Abenaki man who lives in central Vermont. He harvests wild edibles, medicinal herbs, and ceremonial plants, and spring often finds him outdoors in search of the first harvests. “First thing in the spring I get marsh marigolds,” he told me. “The leaves are picked before the flower blooms, and they are washed and blanched three times to get some of the bitter out. Through the winter we store a lot inside us, and this helps us cleanse. We eat a meal or two of these.

“Next are the wild leeks. I never harvest more than a third. I never could anyway since there are so many! We destroy the plant when we harvest them, so we need to leave some for the future. I pick them as clean as I can and put them in freezer bags—they last us about a year. That’s my onion and garlic flavoring for cooking. Shortly after leeks come the fiddleheads. Fiddleheads grow back so I don’t have to be as careful with how many I pick.”

In the past, springtime also thawed the ice on the waters, allowing the Abenaki men to fish for walleye, sucker, shad, alewives, and salmon. What was not eaten right away would be dried and saved to be consumed throughout the year. Late spring was also the time for planting corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins.

Summer was the time when the women gathered many wild fruits, including chokecherries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, and blueberries. The women also tended the cultivated corn, beans, and squash. For the past few years, Todd has grown corn, beans, and squash in a traditional ‘three sisters’ garden.” “The corn is a flint corn, mostly dried because it’s easier to store,” he says. “It is usually ground, and can be rehydrated or can be made into hominy. I ground some this year to use for food.” This type of garden was successful among the Abenaki because the three plants provided a type of communal growing environment. The corn provided a support for the climbing beans, the beans re-introduced valuable nitrogen back to the soil, and the prickly squash vines shaded out weeds and deterred predators from venturing into the maze of foliage.

Todd also told me that “spacing is important, and you can grow a lot in a small area. There was no fertilizer back then, only plants to rely on, like the nitrogen from the beans. I use comfrey tea—I set comfrey and water in buckets, set them out in the sun and they get nice and green, and feed the garden that way.”

Late summer brought the Abenaki people together again for the harvest. Corn and beans were picked, along with other medicinal, traded, and ceremonial plants like herbs, sweetgrass, tobacco, and plants used for dyes. It was also a time when the women gathered nuts such as black walnuts, beechnuts, and chestnuts. Late season berries and plant foods like sumac were also harvested and prepared for storage.

In the fall, field corn was processed by the women, who used a mortar to pound it into a coarse meal. Other wild nuts, such as butternuts, were harvested, and eel were caught, along with other fish. These were preserved and stored with the earlier harvested berries and meats. Much of this food was stored in baskets inside pits lined with bark for use during the winter. Fall also was another season when the men would hunt, sometimes using dogs to pursue deer, moose, and other wild game.

In the cold winter months, the families would spend much of their time inside their dwellings, eating the cured meats and dried berries they had stored in the bark-lined pits. Tools were attended to, skins were processed, games were played, and storytelling passed the time through the sharing of life’s important lessons and the history of the people. Snowshoes allowed the men to get out and hunt for deer and moose and gave them an advantage by allowing them to travel on top of the deep snow whereas the animals’ legs poked through it and slowed them down.

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After looking into this history, I wanted to find out more about what the Abenaki are eating today, so I sent e-mails to Abenaki organizations and ended up talking with two fascinating women.

Melody Walker Brook works at UVM and grew up learning about her Abenaki heritage. She is an Abenaki activist and educator, and enthusiastically offered me insight into the food that her family eats. “Our foods are very simple,” she said. “When I had my wedding I wanted traditional foods. I had wild rice served in pumpkins, frog legs, venison, fish, fish soup, rabbit, turkey with whole cranberries, journeycake, and maple treats.” She said that the Abenaki often make stews that have game, vegetables, and maybe onions. She explained that journeycake is made from hominy pounded to make a flour and mixed with maple sugar or syrup, oil, cranberries, and sometimes nuts. It is cooked on the fire, on a hot rock, or in an oven. Melody also said that one of her all-time favorites is frog legs—“swamp chicken, as we like to call them”—which are coated with cornmeal, salt, and pepper, and then fried. Her family also used to eat quite a bit of fish chowder with corn. “Pike is sort of sweet and not really good for fillets, so we always tried to make chowder when we got a pike.” And they hunted a lot. “Even the squirrels weren’t safe sometimes.”

I also spoke with Judy Dow, a master Abenaki basket maker living in Essex Junction, who shares indigenous knowledge with educators, children, and others. She also passed along some family favorites, including a fish dish. “My mother makes a mean fish chowder! Always has. There was no milk in it—most of us were lactose intolerant.” She has never made it herself, but recalls it has onions, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, and fish. “We had big perch frys all the time. My father would go fishing and bring back 10 dozen perch—it was nothing. My grandfather caught eels and brought them to the old ladies down the road. My mother didn’t want them in the house. We also had rabbit, squirrel, and deer. But not much deer, my father wasn’t so good at that.” Living “10 feet from the lake” also meant they used to do a lot of ice fishing.

Judy also told me that the weekend before Thanksgiving her husband invites the Boy Scouts over to cook a big meal outside, all in dutch ovens. “We cook everything in dutch ovens. We lose our power a lot…and we sit out on the driveway and cook with our dutch ovens. You can cook anything in them, even cake!” One of the Boy Scouts’ favorites is wild rice and berries. “I’ve been married 37 years and I have been making the wild rice and berries for as long as I can remember. I don’t even know where the recipe came from. It’s a simple recipe. You take wild rice and twice the amount of water you usually use for rice, add one bag of cranberries, and cook it until it’s done. Then you add raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, sometimes nuts…and then pour maple syrup in to sweeten it. It’s so good!”

Judy’s enthusiasm was contagious, and I shared some of my own family-food experiences. She even invited me to come to their Thanksgiving feast this year. After I admitted my inexperience in using a dutch oven, she said I could try my hand at it if I wanted to.

In talking with these two women, I realized how similar some of their family meals were to mine. Fish, rabbit, stews, some wild edible plants, and cooking outside not only echoed the ways of the Abenaki then and now but also brought back sweet memories of my childhood and extended family. I look forward to meeting Judy and her friends and family, and to seeing what an Abenaki feast is all about.

About the Author

Lisa Harris

Lisa Harris

Lisa Harris currently lives in Huntington, where she writes, eats, and is breathing new life into her blog.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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