Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Taste of the Iroquois Harvest

Last week we went back in time to the earliest forebears of Grandma Minnie in New Netherland. Here is a story and a menu from the era when her ancestor Cornelis Van Slyck arrived in Rensselaerswijck in the early part of the 17th century:

Imagine walking in the dead of winter from Albany 100 miles west past Amsterdam, Canajoharie, and Utica, floundering through three feet of snow, sometimes waiting for flooding creeks to recede, and wondering where your next meal was coming from. Such a journey was undertaken by three young Dutchmen in the winter of 1634, the same year that Cornelis arrived in the colony. (To our knowledge, Cornelis did not participate in this trip, but the tales he almost certainly heard from its leader may have encouraged him to press west on his own at a later date.)

With the assistance of Mohawk guides, the trio traveled west from Fort Orange through Mohawk and Oneida territory into what is now Oneida County. As employees of the Dutch West India Company, their mission was to investigate the situation regarding the fur trade.

There were reports that the French were making incursions into New Netherland from the north, and were offering the Iroquois more for their furs than the Dutch were. The three men left Fort Orange on December 11, 1634 (377 years ago today!) with five Mohawk guides, and stayed at a number of Iroquois villages as they made their way west. Once the provisions they had brought with them ran out, they were dependent on their Mohawk and Oneida hosts for nourishment and shelter.

The leader of the expedition, Harmen van den Bogaert, wrote an account of their journey, which has been translated by Dr. Charles Gehring and William Starna, and published by Syracuse University Press in 1988. The journal gives modern readers a window into some of the customs of 17th century Iroquois, including an almost daily account of the foods the travelers were offered. Many of these foods sound familiar to 21st century inhabitants of the Capital Region: nearly every Upstate New York school child has heard of the “Three Sisters,” corn, beans, and squash, which were the staples of the Iroquois diet. We also still enjoy turkey, salmon, pumpkins, blueberries, strawberries, and corn muffins. Although we may prepare these foods differently from the way van den Bogaert’s neighbors did, our recipes have their origins in the daily diet of the original inhabitants of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. Some other foods that are mentioned, such as bear meat, beaver meat, rabbit and venison, are a bit more exotic to modern tastes, although not unheard of.

On December 14, van den Bogaert writes, “I bought a very fat turkey for two hands of sewant [wampum], which the chief cooked for us; and the grease that cooked from it, he put in our beans and corn.” The journal mentions cornbread on several occasions, which sometimes has beans baked in it, or chestnuts, dried blueberries and sunflower seeds. To experiment with replicating some of these meals, I came up with the following menu:

Iroquois Harvest Menu
Bean and corn stew
Cornbread with berries and sunflower seeds
Turkey drumsticks

Stew, Cornbread, and Turkey Drumsticks

For the bean and corn stew, I adapted my favorite chili recipe. You can either sauté the scallions, garlic and green pepper first, then add the beans and other ingredients, and simmer for 25 minutes. Or, as an alternate way of cooking this dish, I also tried putting all the ingredients at once into my slow cooker, and letting it cook on low for about 4 hours. Either way, this type of chili or stew always tastes better on the second day, when the flavors have had a chance to melt into each other.

Bean and corn stew:

2 stalks scallions cut into ½ inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium green pepper, chopped (or use red or yellow pepper, to give the stew more color)
3 (15-oz) cans kidney or pinto beans, rinsed and drained (The Iroquois grew several varieties of beans, so you can mix and match to suit your taste. I like to use 1 can each of black, red, and white beans. Or substitute a can of pinto beans for any of those.)
1 (16-oz.) can recipe-style stewed tomatoes, with the juice
1 (8 ¾ oz.) can of corn
½ to 1 tbsp. ground cumin, to taste
2 bay leaves (Be sure to remove these before serving.)

You can also add more flavor if you wish, by adding a half jar of mild salsa and/or a few slices of bacon, crumbled. If you wish to copy van den Bogaert’s description more closely, simmer a couple of turkey drumsticks in chicken stock and serve those on the side.


Great-grandma Kittie Van Slyke, who spent her whole life in the Mohawk Valley, had a simple recipe for cornbread: 1 pint buttermilk, 1 pint cornmeal, 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons melted butter, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and a pinch of salt. I decided to make it even simpler by using a cornbread mix:

To your favorite cornbread or corn muffin mix, add any combination of the following:
1/3 c. sunflower seeds, 1/3 c. chopped chestnuts, 1/3 c. dried blueberries. If you cannot find dried blueberries, you can substitute dried cranberries. Or you can use fresh blueberries, which would make the muffins or bread more like our familiar blueberry muffins. Follow instructions on the package for temperature and baking time, and enjoy this hearty Mohawk meal. 
To be continued . . . 

Author's Note: This post is based on an article that appeared in The Altamont Enterprise on November 19, 2009. Used by permission. 

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