The First Localvores
Vermont’s early Abenaki ate many of the same local foods we do today
Written onDecember 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.
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.
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.