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  • Photo by DANA BENNER A tripod such as this one at Plimouth Plantation was used by Native Americans for hanging pots over a fire.
  • Photo by DANA BENNER Soup was a staple for Native Americans in New England.
Sunday, November 21, 2010

Soup: A basic meal of the Pennacook

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 third and final article in a three-part feature about traditional Native American foods.

This being the last of the food-related articles about the Pennacook, I figured I should concentrate on the actual act of cooking.

My mom always had soups and stews available. The same was true for the Pennacook and other Native people. Meals were eaten all day. People ate when they were hungry, not at set times like we do today. Soups, stews and later, chowders, were something that could be started in the morning and kept going all day.

No matter the type of soup, stew or chowder you made, the basis of the meal has always been good stock.

For fish soups, the stock would be made by boiling down the head, tail and bones from the previous night’s meal. Stock was also made from the broth that was left over from steaming clams, mussels, crabs and lobsters.

The bones of turkey, grouse, ducks and geese were also boiled down to make stock, as were the bones of game animals such as deer, moose and bear. The bones of land animals were also often broken open to obtain the nutrient-rich marrow. Among the Native people, nothing was ever wasted.

According to Earl Mills Sr., Chief Flying Eagle of the Mashpee Wampanoag: “My ancestors valued the gifts of Mother Earth. Every part of the vegetable, fruit, fish or animal was used.”

Making soup stock isn’t difficult, although it does take time. The Pennacook would put the bones into a clay pot – or, after the arrival of the Europeans, iron trade pots. Enough water was added to cover the bones, and then the pot was either put into the hot coals of a fire or suspended over the fire and brought to a boil.

Over an open fire, this process could take a good portion of a day. On modern stoves, this process should take only an hour or so.

As the bones boil, water is lost in the process, so water would be added as needed to keep them covered. The same happens on modern stoves, so keep an eye on your soup.

I recently tried my hand at rendering the bones of a turkey and pheasant, trying to follow the techniques of my ancestors, with the exception of cooking over an open fire. My goal was to make a stew.

I put the carcass of the turkey and pheasant in a large pot. I covered the bones with water and added an onion and what herbs I thought the Pennacook would have had.

One thing that was used by many of the Native people of New England was a small, grass-like plant that’s a member of the onion family. The Native people call this plant “wild garlic.” As I didn’t have this available, I used a clove of regular garlic instead.

After an hour or so, the stock was ready and it was time to make my pheasant and turkey stew.

Soups, stews and chowders are most easily described as a mixture of whatever is lying around. The Pennacook added whatever vegetables and meat were left from previous meals to the stock.

Common ingredients of today’s soups and stews include carrots, potatoes and celery, but none of these were available to the Pennacook or any other New England Native people until the arrival of the Europeans.

I tried to make my stew with traditional ingredients, but finding these was easier said than done. Wild onions were available to the Pennacook, as were beans, corn and squash. Although potatoes are native to the Americas, they weren’t available to the Pennacook. Instead, the Pennacook would have used Jerusalem artichokes, which are a relative of the sunflower, and groundnuts.

As neither of these root crops is readily available, I used potatoes in my stew.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while I did this as a two-step process – first making the stock and then the stew – the Pennacook would have done this as one step. While I could render stock and then freeze any extra, the Pennacook didn’t have freezers. They would have added the meat and vegetables as the stock was being made, pulling out the bones afterward.

Before I made my stew, I did some research at the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., to see how it was done. In the Native village, there was a central fire, and suspended over the fire was an iron trade pot, the contents of which happened to be the makings of a fish soup/stew. Chopped onion, whole and cracked corn, wild garlic and fish were added to the boiling mix.

Periodically, the mixture was stirred and more water was added as needed, but the soup was left pretty much alone, with the women off doing other chores. The aroma of fish and vegetables that filled the air made my stomach growl.

Chowders as we know them today basically started as a soup to which were added milk or cream and butter. These weren’t known to the Pennacook or any other Natives of New England until the Europeans brought cattle here in the early 1620s.

At that time, milk wasn’t pasteurized, and without refrigeration, led to many illnesses. The cooking process of making chowder seemed to kill many of the illness-causing bacteria in the milk and other dairy products.

Making soups, stews and chowders are the basics of cooking. If you can accomplish this, then you have the makings of a meal. The Pennacook and other Native people used soups a great deal, as once made, they can be kept hot all day, and soup can be stretched out by adding more water and extra meat and vegetables.

I remember my mother saying, when she found out extra people were coming over: “That’s OK. We will just add more water to the soup.”

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.