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  • Courtesy photo Clay pots are shown with berry tea simmering in them. The cornmeal mixture for sump is in the background.
  • Courtesy photo Making sump at Plimouth Plantation.
  • Courtesy photo A wild turkey.
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Many Pennacook foods still enjoyed today

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in an occasional series about the Pennacook Indians, who lived in this area before the city of Nashua was formed. This is the second article in a three-part feature about traditional Native American foods.

Before I started this article, I asked numerous people about all of the foods we consider “New England foods” and how many of them originated with Native Americans.

Not many people could name more than one or two.

The truth is, most of these foods are of Native origin.

The Pennacook women made many traditional meals to keep their families going. Many of the foods they ate, or variations of them, are still enjoyed today. Some of the more familiar ones are wild game, fish, squash, beans and above all, corn.

Corn was the main ingredient of most meals. Cornmeal, cracked corn, parched corn and whole fresh corn were used. The number of ways corn was used is too numerous to list here, but they included popcorn, corn bread, succotash (a mixture of corn and beans), corn chowder and roasted corn on the cob.

Cornmeal was the base of many foods. Cornmeal was, and still is, used in the same way that wheat flour is used (European colonists introduced wheat and other grain crops to North America). Because of its extensive use, Pennacook women spent many hours every day grinding corn into meal using hand grinding stones. Large grinding stones, the ones we see in gristmills, were one of the contributions brought by the colonists.

The ground meal was often mixed with dry and fresh fruit and nuts to make many varieties of bread. It was also used to make a variety of porridge called nausamp, or samp. This porridge was a mixture of cornmeal, nuts (acorns, chestnuts, etc.), fresh or dried fruit and maple syrup. The mixture was then added to a clay vessel of berry tea and reheated and allowed to thicken over a small fire. There are numerous variations of this recipe.

Another use for cornmeal was as a thickening agent in soups and stews. Whole and cracked corn were added to soups, stews and later to chowders (the chowders we know today come about after the Europeans introduced cattle to the area, thus providing milk and butter).

Green corn, like we eat today, was often roasted right on the cob. Leaving the husk on the corn, the ear was put in hot coals to cook.

Another traditional food is beans. The Pennacook either cooked beans by themselves, cooked with other vegetables or mixed them into soups, stews and chowders.

By far the most popular method and one readily adopted by the colonists were baked beans. The Pennacook, and other New England Native people, had no ovens, so they baked beans.

The beans were put in a clay pot of water. The pot was then lowered into a hole with hot coals in the bottom. This hole acted as an early oven, cooking the beans. More water would be added to the pot as needed.

The baked beans we know today had to wait for molasses, which was imported from the West Indies, but there is nothing to say that the Pennacook didn’t add maple syrup to their beans to give them extra flavor.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, let’s take a look at the turkey. Turkeys are native to North America, with the first turkeys being exported to Europe by the colonies in the 16th century. These exported birds were domesticated in Europe and then shipped back to the colonies and are the big white birds that grace our tables today.

The wild turkey was a staple of the Pennacook diet. It was a large bird, weighing as much as 50 pounds, so it could feed a lot of people.

According to Dale Carson, in her book “Native New England Cooking,” turkeys “were usually cooked on a spit over an open fire for a long period of time.” Carson is Abenaki and is an authority on Native cooking, so the method she mentions probably held true for the Pennacook, as did the method I learned from the Mashpee Wampanoag at Plimouth Plantation.

The Pennacook and Wampanoag were trading partners, so it’s a safe bet that they also adopted cooking styles. While the Wampanoag did cook turkeys on a spit, they also had an ingenious way of roasting the birds. After wrapping the turkey in green grape leaves, they would cover it with river clay and place it in a bed of coals to roast. When the clay was dry, the Wampanoag would simply break it away and have a fully cooked, moist bird. This method would also be used when cooking geese.

No matter how the turkey was cooked, there were always bones left over. The Pennacook would put them in a clay pot (later, after the arrival of Europeans, iron pots replaced clay), cover them with water and boil them down to make soup and soup stock. Any vegetables added to the soup depended to what leftovers the cook had on hand.

Last, let’s look at the method of cooking for which New England probably is best known: the clambake. Of course, the clambake originates with people living along the coast. The Pennacook inhabited the coastal areas of northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire and southern Maine at least part of the year, so the clambake would be used by these people.

Carson – and Earl Mills Sr. backs her up in his book “Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook” – suggests that to do a traditional clambake properly, you need to devote an entire day.

Carson says, “Early in the day, dig a pit three feet wide and about two and a half feet deep.” Mills, a Wampanoag, doesn’t mention using a pit, but whether in a pit or on the ground, rocks of various sizes were arranged and a fire would be lit, superheating the rocks.

Once the rocks were at the proper temperature, they were covered with seaweed (usually rockweed), which was kept wet with buckets of seawater. The clams were placed on the first layer of seaweed, and they were covered with another layer of seaweed. Next came the lobsters and fish, which also were covered with seaweed. Last came the corn, still in the husk, which was covered with seaweed, too. The pile was allowed to steam for an hour or so.

Over the centuries, potatoes were added to the recipe.

These are just four of the familiar foods we know today that had their beginnings with the Pennacook and other Native people of New England. These foods and how to prepare them were taught to European colonists when they first arrived. The Europeans brought with them different vegetables and spices that were later added, thus forming the dishes we enjoy today.

Dana Benner, who grew up in Hudson and lives in Bedford, is of Penobscot/Micmac descent and is a member of the New Hampshire Inter-tribal Council. He has been studying and researching Native American history and culture for more than 25 years. His research has taken him throughout the Northeast, Alaska, the Plains and Hawaii. He has given seminars to schools and civic groups on the Native history of New Hampshire. He is also working toward a Bachelor of Arts in U.S. History and Native Culture from Granite State College.