The Interpretive Perspective: Native American Cooking Through the Ages

Article follows the photos:
Toltec Archeological State Park
Toltec Archeological State Park
Dutch oven cooking demonstration
Dutch oven cooking demonstration
Cooking demonstration
Cooking demonstration
December 20, 2002


The Interpretive Perspective: Native
American Cooking Through the Ages

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Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

SCOTT -- Interpreter Susan Nichols, 26, helps create and head programs that explain the history and importance of Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park. Topics covered by park interpreters at Toltec include primitive pottery, archeological excavations, Native American games and storytelling, basket making, flint knapping and gourd gardening.

Below, Susan, an Arkansas native who has a degree in anthropology from the University of Colorado and who has worked at Toltec since 2000, talks about one of her favorite programs, "Native American Cooking Day: Gardeners, Gatherers, Hunters and Planters."

(Note: At the conclusion of this article, Susan also shares some recipes.)

About the Cooking Day event

"I developed this event to give visitors an opportunity to try some traditional and more modern Native American style foods. The night before the event, interpreters prepare around a dozen dishes, which allows us to provide programs and give site and museum tours while guests sample the dishes. We also give them the recipes. The visitors do not participate in any of the cooking because the park simply doesn't have the accommodations at this time. However, once the new educational pavilion is completed, we may allow the visitors participate in the actual cooking."

How often are these types of programs offered?

"Native American Cooking Day is held in the winter -- this year on January 18. During special event days, crafters, artisans and interpreters provide hands-on demonstrations and presentations. This year, flint-knapping demonstrations and a Native American plant program will also be given on Cooking Day. We also have a variety of other special events and regular workshops planned throughout the year."

What are the reactions to the food?

"Most visitors who come to the park on Cooking Day are ready to try just about anything. Hot herbal teas, beans, breads, and stews give families a chance to warm up after a winter walk around the archeological site. Even though visitors may dislike the foods they try, I still think they appreciate the opportunity to try new dishes. Last year, we served venison and wild rice stew. Some visitors even remarked how similar it tasted to recipes they use today to cook deer meat. Fry bread and Indian tacos are always favorites. Children especially like to drizzle honey over fry bread samples. Wild raspberry cake and pumpkin bread have been offered in the past and were received favorably by everyone. Children were especially happy to see popcorn, roasted sunflower seeds and dried berries on the menu. Most people never realize that many of the foods we eat today were eaten by Native Americans long ago at the Toltec site."

What kind of research did you do to find out about Native American foods and cooking?

"As far as finding out what the residents of this archeological site ate, we simply had to look at the archeological evidence gathered from the site over the past few decades. Bones from various animals were found. ...Charred hickory nuts, persimmon, blueberry, grape, gourd, barley, maize, and sunflower seed have been collected as well. As to what specific recipes the Plum Bayou people used, we have no idea. This site is prehistoric so no written or oral history is available. From the various styles and types of pottery found at Toltec, we can assume that these clay vessels were used in the cooking and the storage of food.

"Much of my research came from Dr. Ann Early's [Arkansas Archeological Survey] brochure entitled 'Native American Food.' The article discusses the plants and animals used for food by native peoples in Arkansas before the arrival of European explorers. The article explains that meals were prepared in a variety of ways. Some were probably eaten fresh, while other foods could have been dried, parched, or pounded into a paste or powder by using a grinding stone. Dr. Early explains that some foods would have been cooked over open fires, most likely by roasting, and possibly by pit roasting, smoke drying, and cooking in skins or bladders.

"This workshop is not meant to lead visitors to believe that the Indians at Toltec ate the exact foods we serve. Instead, we are trying to expose visitors to traditional Native American ingredients such as pumpkin, squash, venison, berries and others that they might ordinarily not use."

Who makes up your typical audience?

"Our typical audience at most special events consists of tourists and families who 'just happen to drop by.' Many return year after year to take part in special events, day camps, and workshops. In fact, most of our workshops and classes are made up repeat visitors and families. Although most workshops and classes are designed for ages 13 and up, we do offer day camps for younger children in the summer months."

If you go

Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park is nine miles southeast of Little Rock on U.S. 165. Take Exit 7 off Interstate 440 and follow the park signs. Susan says the Cooking Day event is free with paid park admission, which is $2.50 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 6-12. Hours for the Jan. 18 event are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call (501) 961-9442.

Cooking programs at other state parks

Lake Charles, Woolly Hollow, Cane Creek, Old Davidsonville, Ozark Folk Center and DeGray Lake Resort state parks offer food or cooking demonstrations at various times throughout the year. Visit www.ArkansasStateParks for more information on these parks and for other programs and events at Arkansas state parks.

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Recipes Susan has used

Indian Fry Bread

2 cups corn flour
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 teaspoon salt

Mix ingredients. Form into balls and roll into thin, round cakes. Cook on hot, lightly greased skillet, turning frequently.

Indian Stew

Chunks of meat (fresh or dried)
Animal fat or nut oil
Beans
Chunks of squash or other vegetable
Corn or hominy
Wild onions or other seasonings
Water
Salt (to taste)

Stir-fry meat chunks in oil or fat. Add remaining ingredients. Fill pot with water. Cook until meat is tender and stew is thick.

Wild Raspberry Cake

1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup white sugar
1 cup raspberries
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1/2 cup milk
2 eggs, slightly beaten
3/4 cup shortening
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Sift together flour, salt, sugar, cinnamon. Cut in shortening. Then mix in soda, eggs and raspberries. Pour into a greased pan and bake at 325 degrees (F) for one hour.

Pumpkin Bread

1/2 cup oil
1 3/4 cup sugar (or maple syrup or honey)
2 eggs
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup of chopped pecans or walnuts
1/2 teaspoon each of: allspice, cinnamon, ground cloves and nutmeg
1/3 cup water

Mix sugar, oil, pumpkin, eggs and water. Mix the rest of the dry ingredients and add to mixture. Blend and pour into greased bread pan. Bake at 350 degrees (F) for one hour. Makes one loaf.

Sassafras Tea

Dig (or buy from store), chop and wash sassafras roots. Place roots in large pan and cover with water and boil slowly for a few minutes. Steep until desired strength, strain and add water and maple syrup or sugar.

Mint Tea

Bring clean, washed mint leaves to boil. Steep until desired strength, strain and add water and sugar. Can be added to sassafras tea.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"