Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nez Perce Foods

One of the funnest ways to relate to a culture you aren't really familiar with is through its unique foods.  With some cultures, this can be really difficult to do (and get the genuine article), but I know the Roman feast we had was a huge hit (even without sugar).  Since we are reading the American Girl Books as our "in" to US History, we are starting with Kaya.  For more information and other activities from the unit (not all of which specifically go with Kaya), simply click the link at the bottom of the page for the Kaya Unit Home. 

Besides the information in the Kaya series itself, I found the American Indian Health and Diet Project website to offer a straightforward and brief synopsis of Nez Perce history of food habits very helpful.  The National Historic Monument Site also had great general information about the plants most readily available in the area the Nez Perce traditionally inhabited, how they used those plants, and how being confined to a reservation affected their diet.

Since the Nez Perce were largely migrational, it is important to make sure kids understand how Nez Perce foods changed with the seasons.  This lesson plan is a great way to get your kids started on planning their feast while also teaching them about the way the Nez Perce of Kaya's time perceived the seasons.  It is also important to differentiate between migrational living and hunting and gathering.  Notice, when Kaya's community migrates to the valley where camas is gathered, they go to a place where they know the bulbs are already growing.   Same is said for berry season.  This isn't exactly the same as simply gathering what is found.  Additionally they make sure to leave some berries on the bush (which produce seeds and help to keep other animals fed as well),  Same is true for the way they treated the camas bulb.  They cultivated what already grew, they didn't just gather what they found.  Each season they have villages they return to each year for what that particular location offers at a particular time of year.  For a picture of a modern Nez Perce in the process of gathering roots, simply click this sentence.  The description under the photo claims the subject in the photo is harvesting camas bulbs.  However, the flowers do not look at all like camas, instead, I think he may be collecting kouse or biscuit root, based on the look of the flowers around him.

To compare a migrational lifestyle with that of a farming lifestyle, you might also teach your students a bit about the Tribes that farmed such as the Shawnee, Iroquois or the Navajo.  These farmers tended the soils and, sometimes irrigated their fields.  A helpful online article for the teaching adult, or high school student about Permaculture and Native Agricultural practices is on The Why Files and might provide good background information for your own understanding before presenting the differences to your students.  Your students might enjoy learning about the "Three Sisters" to better understand a farming practice common to some of the farming Eastern Tribes.  This particular version is Iroquois.

When it was Fresh

In spring and summer, Nez Perce would have access to their dried foods as these were made throughout the year because they stored and traveled well in order to accomplish having food throughout the colder months too.  However, fresh foods would have been a special treat during the seasons of abundance.  Foods that were dried to store for the rest of the year (as well as eaten fresh were, choke cherries, blueberries, huckleberries, service berries and thimbleberries among others.  They also would have dried meats and roots to store.  Additionally, a number of greens such as clover would have been enjoyed during these periods of time. 

Fresh salmon would have been abundant during the salmon runs.  Salmon and camas bulbs were main staples in the Nez Perce diet that were used frequently throughout the year.

A Winter Meal

Some winter foods would have included dried or smoked meat (jerky) and root soup.  Dried meat and berries as well as roasted meats fresh from a hunt.  There also may have been various nuts and seeds.  In the photo above you can see plain sunflower seeds - lightly toasted.

Food For Travel and On the Hunt

Fingercakes were a special treat made from the kouse root that would have been available especially in spring, but again stored and kept well for long periods too.  Pemmican helped keep hunters fed on very little while off on a long hunt (such as was required to treck into the plains for buffalo after horses were part of the Nez Perce culture.

What We Made

Some of the foods the Nez Perce ate were easy to get (blueberries - even dried) aren't all that hard to find,  Camas bulbs were not easy, and kouse (pronounced something like cowish) even tougher but alternatives with similar taste or texture CAN be found and used to at least give a kid a memorable experience.  It is important to make sure a child knows the taste may not be exactly right though.

Blue Cams Flower (I think it is a different species than the edible one though)

Cooking and Eating Blue Camas is a blog about Hank Shaw's experience with camas bulbs in the kitchen.  He foraged for his own, but he does make them sound delicious - and HARD to FIND!!  If you do go foraging, be aware there are two plants that look almost alike.  One is called, "The death camas." If you would like to see a video about Camas bulbs (and what they look like) in the field THIS VIDEO is a good one with which to start.  After watching you may want to ask, "why do you think he is saving the smaller bulbs to replant?" and see what answer your kids can come up with.  If they don't answer, "the small ones won't be much to eat and if they just toss them there won't be any the next year" (or something like that)  This Second Video is all about preparing the camas in different ways and what they look like "in the kitchen."

Our "Nez Perce Dinner" wound up not being authentic really at all.  There were many times I wished I knew a modern Nez Perce or two as that might have been helpful in getting the flavors closer (even if I couldn't get exactly the right ingredients,) because they do still cook SOME of their traditional foods in addition to eating a modern American Diet.   However, the experience did give Alice the idea of cooking from what was available and something truly memorable to attach information from her other lessons to (something that helps with information retention).

Since we couldn't get camas bulbs, we roasted sweet potato and roasted onions - one to taste the flavor many name as most similar as that to a nicely roasted and caramelized camas bulb, the other to see how a bulb would change in appearance (and flavor) while roasting as well as to experience the most likely texture the bulbs would have had.  In both linked recipes I followed the directions given, but omitted the herbs the recipe called for.  With the onions, I added a smear of canned coconut milk to the top to help them sweeten and caramelize.  If you are looking for more alternatives, you can sort through these other plant species that grow in the NW wild to see what flavors you might prefer.  Also, remember tribes across the continent were connected through a sophisticated series of trade routes and associations.  The Nez Perce were exposed to, Horses, European Trade Goods, and European epidemics long before they ever actually met a white man in person because of the sophisticated trade relationships that existed.  Traded spices may also have been used (though probably not as frequently or in as great quantities and supplies native to the Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington Valleys and Mountain slopes.

Another Nez Perce standard was the "kouse root."  Finding anything about this plant online was extremely difficult. One example I could find was on a site called, "countries and their cultures."  On that site, the root is described as "corn like."  Scroll down to the part titled "cuisine to read the reference yourself."  I also found this resource, that refers to "biscuit root" and associates it as the Nez Perce "cousroot."  When I did further searches on biscuit root (and as a result, lomatium) I discovered a lot more information, incuding photos of the flower, and its equivalent flavors.  Since Aalah makes finger cakes in Meet Kaya, again we did our best knowing we weren't quite on target and made corn meal finger cakes with parsley in them to try to approximate the flavor.  It took half cornmeal half flower to mellow the corn flavor enough to taste the parsley (I wound up using a bottle of parsley and about three cups each of cornmeal and flower to get it to work).  Be careful, add the water very slowly.  If you get too much water in it, then it is too sticky and you can't get it off of your fingers enough to let it dry. Shape them by squishing them in your hand and then leave them in a safe spot to dry for a few days.

Jerky Stew - Although I had no recipe references from which to work for this one, jerky was used in stews or soups in winter.  The meat re-hydrated somewhat while boiled in water.  I decided since the wild carrot was available and used by the Nez Perce, I would simply make a parsnip (which I couldn't find this time of year, so I settled on carrot), leek and potato soup with the jerky in it.  Although the potato we use frequently today was not native to the area (even though Idaho is known for its potato farms today), they did eat many roots and tubers which have similar starchy blandness to them.  Again, I added parsley because it is likely the kouse root would have been one ingredient used for this kind of purpose AND the camas bulb while sweet and sugary when roasted, would have been more oniony when dried or eaten raw (hence the leeks).  I simply boiled the jerky, leeks and parsley for awhile, then added small potatoes and forgot about the carrots (because I can be like that sometimes).  It was really tasty - even without the carrots

Pemmican can be made a lot of different ways.  As you may know from reading Kaya's Escape, pemmican is a high energy food that was wonderful for keeping bands in transit well-fed without the need for a lot of cooking.  Hunting groups would have had pemmican in their saddle bags.  The Northern Tribes, such as the Inuit, made Pemmican with a little jerky and a lot of fat, but it does seem the Nez Perce used jerky, oil and dried fruits to make it (which sounds a little more appealing to me).

One article I found goes over quite a bit more detail about how Plains Indian Groups made pemmican with buffalo as well as how they used it.   The best list of resources available was from Cornell.  The Nez Perce would have had access to buffalo to make pemmican this way at times, but we know they also used deer meat and sometimes even dried salmon.  For supplies that are easy to find (even if they aren't exactly what the Nez Perce would have used) you can try the recipe NPS gives on the Nez Perce Nation Historical Monument site.  You will have to scroll down to find it.  For more authentic fair - there are TONS of ideas on what was used and how to make the pemmican online (it is considered a survival food).  Unfortunately, it would seem not a lot of it is focused on the Nez Perce way or well substantiated (in terms of amount of fruit and nuts).  Quite an argument seems to exist out there about whether fruit was ever used in the first place.  Most recipes do not call for adding nuts or seeds.  Personally, I doubt if there was only one authentic way.  Any migratory group of people used what was available to them at the time they needed something.  Seasonally, what was available changed dramatically.  Sometimes, it probably was jerky, animal fat, and that was it.

Roasted or smoked deer, buffalo and salmon for protein would all be authentic foods.  Jerky made of these meats would be an appropriate protein to start with for making soups or just eating as a jerky for a Winter meal.  Seasoning is a bit more of a question.  In 1764, The Nez Perce would NOT have dressed their roasted  meats with rosemary for instance.

The Idaho Botanical Gardens have a lovely packet online about plants from Idaho, how they got there, and how they are used by humans.  Check out their lessons and activities guide called "Idaho Plantlore".

I guess many people connect "fry bread" as yummy American Indian food.  However, according to Navajo tradition, fry bread was made with the flour, sugar, salt and lard the US government gave them when the Navajo were relocated to lands that made it difficult if not impossible to sustain themselves with their traditional foods.  Fry bread is incredibly fattening and requires processed ingredients.  Additionally, the Nez Perce were somewhat migratory so growing wheat and processing that wheat into flour of any kind would be impossible.  One source I read online said it was possible the Nez Perce made a flour from camas bulbs but even that was pure conjecture from a chef that was trying to figure out how to make his fry bread "authentic."  I think it fairly unlikely the Nez Perce would have eaten it pre-European contact.   However, discussing fry bread and its POSSIBLE history, can be another way to talk about how humans transition through time.  It can be a way to start the discussion about how we've all changed over the past centuries AS WELL as the oppression Native Americans were forced to endure.   It also may offer up a way to discuss one of the issues many American Indians still face today - maintaining a healthful diet.  For more information on this current issue check out more on the American Indian Health and Diet Project site.  If you WOULD like to add this to your feast, I thought this recipe looked simple enough to try.

Back to the Unit Home Page - US History with Kaya

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comments!