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Native Harvests: American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes

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"The most intelligent and brilliantly researched book on the food of the American Indian." —Craig Claiborne, The New York Times
This wonderful book is not just a recipe collection, but a passport to foraging and to surviving close to nature. It will tell you how to prepare familiar foods such as stuffed clams and corn chowder, but also how to fix clover soup, purslane salad, young milkweed spears, wild rice with hazelnuts and blueberries, fiddlehead stew, meadow mushroom pie, stewed wild rabbit with dumplings, spoon bread, acorn coffee, and witch hazel tea. Beautifully illustrated by the author (herself of American Indian descent), this book is also an invaluable manual on herbal medicines and ceremonial, sacred, and poisonous plants — all written with acute sensitivity to and appreciation of Native American ways.

ISBN-13: 9780486440637

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Dover Publications

Publication Date: 03-04-2005

Pages: 272

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Native Harvests

American Indian Wild Foods and Recipes

By E. Barrie Kavasch

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31905-6



"The stones are Earth's bones. They are not dead at all, and anything that has life still retains that life when you use it."

... Tsonakwa, Abenaki, 1980

Wild seasonings are as fascinating and limitless as the great outdoors. A knowledge of the safe versus the toxic is vital and easy to acquire. The early Americans evolved an extensive usage of seasonal, indigenous North American flavorings, which is impressive and beneficial to us today.

Use herbs and spices sparingly to enhance, not dominate, the natural flavors of foods. As a rule, a recipe to serve 6 people can use ½ teaspoon (or less) of any coarsely chopped dried herb or spice. Dried herbs are used in less quantity because of their more concentrated form and stronger flavors. Add most herbs during the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking time, or they will become bitter and lose their nutritive value. The best aroma and flavor of herbs, spices, seeds, and nuts is contained in their aromatic oils, which dissipate with time, some lasting much longer than others. Leaf herbs have the most aromatic oil and the best flavor when fresh.

Early Americans also knew the special properties of ashes mixed with their foods, or in water, for various preparations. Ashes of distinctive woods such as cedar, juniper, hickory, and so on, were definite flavorings, as well as cleansing and digestive agents. Ashes also bleach and soften some foods and add trace minerals, subtly influencing taste and consistency. Ashes in water create lye, which will harden and chemically change the substances to which it is added.

Spoon fresh ashes out of a fireplace, woodburning stove, or campfire for use in the recipes. (In some cases substitutions are indicated.) Be sure not to scrape the ashes out of the fireplace, or you will pick up unwanted and harmful tars and residues.

Nuts and Seeds

Conventional salt, sea salt, pepper, sugar, cornsyrup, honey and fruit sugars, cream and butter may be added to some of these recipes as you adapt them to your own personal tastes, but please try to experience these very different tastes on their own merits first. Salt and sugar are certainly flavor enhancers and preservatives, so use them to suit your own tastes as you develop these recipes to their fullest appreciation.

Nut and seed butters and oils were a primary nutritive seasoning among most native Americans. They provided the greatest flavor accents and were a widely used staple in native diets.

Botanically speaking, nuts are any hard-shelled fruit with a large food store, whereas seeds are smaller and have more limited food reserves; both will keep more or less indefinitely.

Nuts were used extensively by many American Indian tribes who taught the early colonists how to gather and prepare them for flour, pastes, oil, butter, pottages and dyes. Part of the Indian's annual cycle of activities included the autumn harvest of the black walnuts, acorns, hickory nuts and chestnuts. Nuts were an important item in the Indian's diet and as winter progressed and the food supply became low, they depended more and more upon them for nourishment. They deemed nuts so important that several tribes named their moons or times of the year after them. For example, the Natchez Indians called their twelfth moon (around the latter part of January) that of the Chestnut and the thirteenth moon (February) that of the nuts.

BEECHNUTS (Fagus grandifolia) are one of the most flavorful products of our northern forests. They are best gathered in late October or November after heavy frosts have dropped them to the ground. Delicious raw or cooked, beechnuts are best gathered before dawn, when possible, to beat the squirrels. Roasted beechnuts, when ground, can be used as fine caffeine-free coffee. Approximately one sixth of the nut's weight is oil, which is easily extracted by mashing and pressing the small nuts into a paste or by boiling and skimming the oil off the surface of the cooled broth. The flavor of this oil improves with time and keeps well. Beechnuts can also be made into a nutritious flavor by simply mashing or grinding the nuts and allowing the paste to dry out completely; then grind further, depending on the fineness desired.

Beech trees were an important part of the Iroquois diet. The inner bark (like that of the pine) was dried, ground, and used to make bread. The young beech leaves were also cooked as greens in the spring.

North American oaks (about 60 native spp.) are divided into two groups: WHITE OAKS (Quercus alba) and RED OAKS (Quercus rubra). White oaks generally have rounded lobed leaves and sweet acorns that mature in one season. Red oaks generally have pointed bristile-tipped lobed leaves and bitter acorns that usually require two years to mature.

Oaks of all species produce acorns, which were probably the most important and plentiful nut foot for most tribes. All acorns are edible, nutritious food, but some require careful preparation to make them palatable and safe. White oak acorns may be eaten raw, but before eating red oak acorns it is first essential to leach out the bitter, constipating tannin that makes them toxic. The shelled acorns are soaked in several water baths, sometimes mixed with wood ashes, until the nutmeats sweeten or become less bitter.

Most nutmeats, including sweet white oak acorns, were eaten raw by a number of tribes, especially the Algonquins. Nuts were pounded into meal to be used in breads, soups, and for seasonings; they were also ground in a mortar with water to make a flavorful nut "milk" to add to various dishes. Nut oils were rendered by boiling the nutmeats and meal, then skimming off the oil. This nutritious staple was used to prepare and to season vegetables, potherbs, and meats, and to spread on breads. The breads were usually "cakes" made by mixing cornmeal with what was left in the bottom of the pot after nut oils were rendered, and then frying this batter in hot fat or roasting it in hot coals.

OIL OF OAK was prepared and used by many Eastern Woodlands tribes. The acorns were pounded into flour and boiled in water containing maple-wood ashes, whereupon the oil was skimmed off. The flour was retained and used in breads and cereals.

HICKORY MILK, (Carya ovata and C. tomentosa) a staple ingredient in Eastern Algonquian, Cherokee, and Creek Indian cooking, was prepared by pounding the shelled dried hickory nuts, then boiling this meal in water and straining and reserving the oily part of the liquid, which was rich, like fresh cream. This was especially well used in their various corn preparations.

HAZELNUTS (Corylus americana and C. cornuta) are excellent nut meats enjoyed raw when they ripen in late summer and early fall. They are also easily ground into a nutritious flour. The dense hazelnut bush flourishes throughout the northeastern United States, bordering fields, hedgerows, and woods.

BLACK WALNUTS (Juglans nigra) and BUTTERNUTS (Juglans cinerea) are tall hardwood trees much prized for their wood. They are becoming somewhat scarce in many regions. Both produce delicious nuts, tough to crack but worth the effort. The nut butter can be prepared by smashing the husked nuts and boiling in water until the nutmeats and oils rise to the surface and can be skimmed off, while the shell pieces settle to the bottom of the pot. The oil can then be separated from the meats, which can, in turn, be dried and used as a tasty flour.

AMERICAN CHESTNUT (Castanea dentata). The only noted Indian remedy for whooping cough records that the chestnut leaves are steeped, with the resulting tea used as a warm astringent drink. The autumn nuts were a highly valued food crop among northeastern Indians and settlers. Once widespread, the American chestnut has been attacked and almost eradicated from our forests by an Oriental fungus blight, which struck our continent in 1904. Experimental forestry is working to inhibit the deadly fungus, and a few American chestnuts are able to resist the blight with the help of a hypovirulent fungus that seems to be able to combat the initial infection.

The delectable chestnut is one of the most popular nuts to roast. Approximately 11 percent protein and 7 percent fat, it is a nutritious and versatile food source with numerous culinary uses.

SUNFLOWER SEEDS (Helianthus spp.) from the native North American annual were used extensively by many tribes. The seeds are an excellent protein source raw or roasted. Sunflower seed oil is extracted by bruising and boiling the seeds, then skimming the oily residue off the broth. The ground paste, retaining its natural oil, makes a fine butter. The roasted seeds and shells make an interesting coffee drink.

* * *


3 cups shelled sunflower seeds, fresh or dried
3 cups water
6 tablespoons fine cornmeal
2 teaspoons maple syrup
½ cup oil

Simmer the seeds in the water in a heavy saucepan, covered, for 1 hour. Grind.

Mix the cornmeal and syrup into the ground seeds, 1 tablespoonful at a time, to make a stiff dough. Shape into firm, flat cakes 3 inches in diameter.

Brown the cakes in hot oil in a heavy skillet on both sides. Drain on brown paper and serve hot.


Spread clean seeds on foil-covered baking sheets. Sprinkle lightly with oil. May be flavored with such herbs as oregano, mint, coltsfoot, and so on. Roast at 325[degrees] F until crisp and brown – about 20 minutes. Serve immediately, or cool and store in airtight containers.


Grind 1 cup or more shelled dried nuts or seeds into a paste, using stones, a mortar and pestle, blender, or food processor. Many nut butters (paste) are sweet enough plain. However, others may require a teaspoon or two of honey or maple syrup mixed in to taste.

This excellent, nutritious topping is great on homemade breads and cakes, or served with fresh fruit, or on fresh, crisp vegetables. Nut and seed butters are very rich and should be used sparingly. Keep refrigerated to retard flavor loss and spoilage.


SPICE (HERB) BUTTER To ½ cup nut or seed butter, add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dillweed (or your favorite herb). Add 1 teaspoon honey and 10 crushed allspice or juniper berries, fresh or dried. Blend together thoroughly and seal in a jar or crock. Keep refrigerated.

MUSTARD BUTTER (for fish and game). To 1 cup sunflower seed butter add 2 tablespoons wild mustard seeds, soaked and crushed in 2 tablespoons corn oil and 1 tablespoon bee pollen. Blend thoroughly and store in a covered jar in the refrigerator.

BEECHNUT-CLOVER BUTTER To 1 cup beechnut butter, add 3 tablespoons dried white clover blossoms and their seeds and 1 tablespoon bee pollen. Blend thoroughly and store.

Beechnut butter has the greatest keeping quality of all nut butters. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator.

MINT BUTTER To ½ cup acorn butter, cream in 2 tablespoons ground fresh mint leaves and 1 teaspoon honey. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator.


1½ cups cooked corn
½ cup shelled dried hickory nuts, chopped
2 tablespoons nut butter (see page 9)
1 cup boiling water
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons fine cornmeal
¼ cup sweet goldenrod blossoms

Combine all ingredients thoroughly and pour into a well-greased casserole. Sprinkle the top with additional hickory nut meats and bake in a preheated 350[degrees] F oven for 1 hour. Serve hot.

BLACK WALNUT-MAPLE COOKIES (yields 3 to 4 dozen large, soft cookies)

1 cup nut butter (see page 9)
2 cups maple sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup shelled dried black walnuts, chopped
2 cups cattail flour (see page 66)
2½ cups potato flour (see page 66)
1 teaspoon wood ashes (see page 4)
1 cup hot water

In a large bowl gradually cream together all ingredients. Drop the batter by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets. Sprinkle the tops with additional nuts if desired. Bake in a preheated 350[degrees] F oven for 20 minutes.

BEECHNUT PIE (serves 8)

1 uncooked 9-inch pie shell or 2 cups blended cornmeal and nutmeal
3 eggs, whipped until frothy
1 cup beechnut butter (see page 9), softened
1 cup light corn syrup
½ cup maple sugar
1 cup dried beechnut meats

Prepare a 9-inch pie shell of your favorite pastry recipe, or press blended corn meal and nutmeal evenly into a well-greased pie plate.

Cream together the whipped eggs and beechnut butter, gradually adding the corn syrup and maple sugar. Turn into the prepared pie shell and bake in a preheated 325[degrees] F oven for 35 minutes. Remove the pie from the oven and cover the top evenly with the beechnut meats. Return the pie to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes.

This pie recipe can be adapted easily to different nuts. (For Black Walnut Pie, substitute 1 cup dark corn syrup.)


1 cup cranberries, chopped
¾ cup shelled dried black walnuts, chopped
1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water
½ cup honey
2 cups fine cornmeal
1 cup cattail flour (see page 66)

Gradually add each ingredient to the cornmeal and flour, blending thoroughly into a smooth batter. Lighten with additional warm water if the batter seems too heavy or thick. Pour into a well-greased loaf pan (9? × 5?) and bake in a preheated 350[degrees] F oven for 1 hour. Or spoon into 10 to 12 greased muffin cups and bake until golden on top—about 25 minutes.


1 tablespoon wood ashes (see page 4)
2 cups boiling water
1 cup dried currants
1 cup dried beechnut meats, broken
3 cup fine cornmeal
1 cup beechnut flour (see page 66)
1 cup maple sugar
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons nut butter (see page 9)

Stir the wood ashes into the boiling water and pour this over the currants. Let stand for 15 minutes to cool. Mix together the remaining ingredients; blend in the currants and water. Spread the batter evenly in a greased pan (9" × 9" × 5") and bake for 45 minutes in a preheated 350[degrees] F oven. Cool slightly and cut into 12 squares.


½ cup raisins
½ cup peanuts
½ cup hickory nuts
½ cup dried apples
½ cup dried pumpkin or squash
½ cup acorn or cornmeal
1/3 cup honey or maple syrup

In order to make sure that the acorn or cornmeal is bone-dry, spread it in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and place it in a warm oven for 15 to 30 minutes, checking frequently. The oven should be at the lowest possible setting. Then combine the dry ingredients and either chop them with a knife or grind them coarsely through a food grinder. Add the honey or maple syrup and blend thoroughly. Divide the mixture into ¼-cup portions, press into cakes, and store in the refrigerator for use as a high-energy trail snack.

Indians traditionally made these small pressed cakes out of shredded bear, buffalo, or deer meat combined with suet, nuts, and dried fruits or berries.


Excerpted from Native Harvests by E. Barrie Kavasch. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents

Personal Acknowledgements
Preface to the Dover Edition
I Nature's Seasonings
II Native Soups
III Native Vegetables
Botanical Charts
IV Native Ferns, Lichens, and Mosses
V Wild Mushrooms
VI Wild Meats
VII Saltwater and Freshwater Harvests
VIII Natural Breads
IX Wilderness Beverages
Native Seasonal Menus and Complements
X Native Ceremonial and Sacred Plants
XI Herbal Traditions: Medicinal Plants and Natural Healthcare
XII Wild Medicines and Cosmetics
XIII Wild Smoking Mixtures
XIV Natural Chewing Gums
XV Poisonous Wild Plants
XVI Native Healing Pathways and Spirituality
Reference Guide
Botanical Index/Mycological Index
General Index
Author/Illustrator's Profile