Fig 1.16 Zea mais rubra 1836, copyright New York Botanical Garden https://www.nybg.org/
Corn was grown by the Native American people all over the Northeast. Brooklyn was originally home to large cornfields, and the Three Sisters planting traditionally meant that a cornfield had corn, beans, and squash grown together in mounds that were often fertilized by dropping a small fish into the center of the mound before planting the seeds.
First the corn was planted and sprouted in a circle at the top of the mound. Then the beans were planted near the corn so that the vines could climb up the corn stalks as they grew. Beans also fixed nitrogen into the soil so that the corn would grow well. Last the squash was planted so that the leaves would shade the roots of the corn and beans during the hottest part of the summer, thus conserving water.
Corn was also dried and used throughout the winter season, as were beans.
Common foods of the Algonkian People of Southern New Netherlands
For people of all cultures, food acquisition, preparation and consumption represents a significant vehicle of cultural transference, between both generations and groups. So many foods we enjoy in the 21st century have Native American (both north and south) origins; some of these foods have even remained nearly unaltered since they were first shared. The Pennsylvania Dutch and New York Dutch Cornmeal Mush, fried mush, or, as it is known by one of its many Algonkian monikers, “Suppawn” or “Sappaen,” is a great example of this.
The diet among the Algonkian peoples of Southern New Netherlands Colony was quite varied. The forests, ponds and lakes provided deer, turkey, bear, turtle, geese and ducks, swans, squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, beavers and muskrats. The rivers, lakes and ponds offered crayfish and all kinds of fresh water fish. The ocean, bays and tidal waters furnished oysters, mussels, crabs, clams, Shad, rockfish, sea bass, sturgeon, salmon, whitefish and lobster. Planted fields supplied flint corn of various colors as well as beans and squashes. Wild vegetation in forest and meadow bestowed blueberries, blackberries, red and black raspberries, cranberries, strawberries, Jerusalem artichokes, may apples, nuts and many other foods upon the Algonkian gatherer. These sources sustained the Algonkian people for thousands of years and continue to do so to this day.
Soups and stews of all kinds are heavily recorded as traditional meals, although some meats were roasted over coals and cornmeal was commonly boiled into a porridge. Soups and stews were the most common way to serve food, first, because it is one of the fastest ways to cook and to ensure that muscular and lean game meats become tender, and second, because boiling these meats and vegetables generates a nutritious broth full of fat, vitamins, and minerals essential to sustaining a healthy body, ensuring that no nutrition was lost. While living the demanding lifestyle of hunting, gathering, and horticulture, wasting vital nutrients was simply not a viable option.
The most commonly recorded food, mentioned above all others, a vital staple known by many names, is the cornmeal mush or porridge known by the Wampanoag and Narragansett as “Nassamp” (nuh sahmp) or “Samp” (Sahmp) and to Algonkian people who spoke the Unami and Munsee dialects Sappaen/Suppawn (sah pan/Sue pawn). Further south it is simply called by the generic term of “hominy.” This food is still made and eaten by numerous Algonkian people and their descendants. It is made from the white hominy corn that has gone through the process of nixtamalization, in which dry flint hominy corn is cooked and seeped in a solution of white pot ash. This white pot ash is primarily alkali, which, over several changes of solution, dissolves the hard outer shell of the corn kernel. The kernel thus becomes soft and edible, but the process also increases the corn’s nutritional value. Modern science has revealed that, “in addition to altering the smell, flavor and color of maize products, nixtamalization provides several nutritional benefits including:
- Increased bioavailability of vitamin B3 niacin, which reduces the risk of pellagra disease
- Increased calcium intake, due to its absorption by the kernels during the steeping process
- Increased resistant starch content in food products, which serves as a source of dietary fiber
- Significantly reduced presence of mycotoxins such as fumonisins and aflatoxins
- Increased bioavailability of iron, which decreases the risk of anemia
“These nutritional and health benefits are especially important in areas where maize is the dietary staple and the risk of aflatoxins is high, as removal of the pericarp is thought to help reduce aflatoxin contamination levels in maize kernels by up to 60% when a load is not highly contaminated.
“Additionally, nixtamalization helps to control microbiological activity and thus increases the shelf life of processed maize food products, which generates income and market opportunities for agricultural communities in non-industrialized area.”(1)
We are fortunate that many colonial Europeans of the 17th century wrote extensively and sometimes in great detail about the food they either saw Native Americans eat and make, were offered in trade or offered when staying as guests with Natives. Adraen Van Der Donck writes,“Their food is normally fish and meat or every kind, depending on the time of year and the locality where they happen to be. They have no pride or particular fashion in preparing and serving these, and cook fish or meat simply in water without any herbs, salt, or lard, other than may be naturally present in it. They are also ignorant of stewing, braising, baking, frying, etc,”(2). However, while Van Der Donck may not have observed this, other sources in the mid Atlantic and later in the 17th century do mention Natives roasting meat and frying food. He continues, “… and rarely heat or grill anything, unless it be morsels of meat and small fish when traveling or hunting and having to make do. For bread they use maize, or Turkish wheat [corn meal], mills being unknown to them. Their women beat or pound it, as the Hebrews did their manna in the wilderness, and bake cakes of it. They will also add the grits to meat to make a broth, the way some use barley or rice here. But their common fare for which this grain is most used is porridge, known there as sappaen. Its use among the Indians is so general that rarely a day passes without their eating it, unless they are traveling or hunting, and one can hardly ever enter an Indian dwelling that this porridge is not being eaten or prepared. All of them, including women, children, and old people, are so attached and used to it that when they visit us or one another they first of all ask and look for sappaen. Without it one cannot entertain them to their liking, nor can they, so it seems, eat their fill. It is often cooked together with meat or fish when available, mostly not fresh but dried and pounded into meal.”(2)
Sappaen/Nassamp/Hominy seems to have a quasi spiritual or ritualistic usage along with being an essential food source. The journals of Col. Henry Norwood in 1649-1650, who was shipwrecked on the eastern shore of Maryland, describe how he and his party were taken care of by the Kickotank/Ginkoteague Indians, who were part of the Pocomoke Indian paramountcy. While staying with the Tallek/Tayek (pronounced tie yek, this title indicates a paramount chief) of the Ginkoteague, Norwood records the socio-spiritual ritualization of a high status food preparation for welcoming important guests into the great lodge. Norwood writes: “Previous to which he [the Tayek] sent his daughter, a well-favour’d young girl of about ten or twelve years old, with a great wooden bowl full of homini (which is the corn of that country, beat and boiled to mash). She did in a most obliging manner give me the first taste of it, which I would have handed to my next neighbour after I had eaten, but the young princess interposed her hand, and taking the bowl out of mine, delivered it to the same party I aimed to give it, and so to all the rest in order. Instead of a spoon there was a well shap’d muscle shell that accompanied the bowl.”(3) Norwood continues on to describe the preparation in detail: “Towards morning we were treated with a new regale brought to us by the same fair hand again [Tallek’s wife}; it was a sort of spoon-meat [pudding like] in colour and taste not unlike to almond-milk temper’d and mix’d with boiled rice. The ground still was Indian corn boiled to a pap [mush] which they call Homini, but dry pokickery [hickory] nuts beaten, shells and all, to powder, and they are like our walnuts but thicker shell’d and the kernel sweeter; but being beaten in a mortar, and put into a tray, hollow’d in the middle to make place for fair water, no sooner is the water poured into the powder, but it rises again white and creamish; and after a little ferment it does partake so much of the delicate taste of the kernel of that nut, that it becomes a rarity to a miracle.”(4) As cited earlier, Van Der Donck states Native people did not entertain without Sappaen available. The ritualized offering of Sappaen in greeting described by Norwood suggests that this food was not only a staple, but a powerful symbol of hospitality. By having homini to offer even in midwinter, a Tayek, in addition to offering welcome, demonstrates his largesse in the bountiful food his tribe has to spare in the harshest conditions, and his prestige among his community with his ability to offer guests such a laboriously made dish.
- A Description of New Netherland, Adriaen Van Der Donck (1647), edited by Charles T. Gherkins and William A. Starna, University of Nebraska Press, 2008 , Pg 77.
- A Voyage To Virginia By Colonel Norwood (1649-1650), Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations 1897, Force’s Collection of Historical Tracts Vol.111.- No. 10., Pg 35
- A Voyage To Virginia By Colonel Norwood (1649-1650), Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations 1897, Force’s Collection of Historical Tracts Vol.111.- No. 10., Pg 37