Many of the typical dishes we see on our tables for Thanksgiving (such as turkey and pumpkin) were common staples of the Native American culture, still, many dishes of the Native communities remain unknown to the majority of Americans.
Some of the popular Thanksgiving dishes are prepared similarly today as they were in Native American communities.umpkin, corn and meat were roasted, but over a fire rather than on a grill. The scope of preparation techniques and flavor combinations does not end there, however. This Thanksgiving, honor the harvest and traditions native to our land by preparing one of these traditional dishes!
Succotash, a vegetable and legume-based dish originating from the Native communities of New England, consists of a combination of crops known as the “Three Sisters.” The “Three Sisters” refer to the method of planting beans, corn and squash together to utilize their symbiotic relationship. The corn stalks provide a structure for the beans to grow on, while the wide leaves of the squash shield the roots and soil from the sun, preventing the soil from quickly drying out. Succotash is prepared by cooking sweet corn with onions, lima beans, tomatoes and a variety of spices. This can be a simple, vegetarian dish to add a splash of color to your Thanksgiving table.
Cherokee bean bread, or tuya asuyi gadu, comes from the Cherokee community and is quite similar to the well-known Mexican tamales. To make this bread, corn flour (also called masa harina) is combined with beans, spices and sometimes some sort of fat, to form the filling. Corn husks are softened through steaming/boiling and then filled with the corn filling and tightly wrapped. These packets are then boiled for an hour to ensure the bread is fully cooked.
A simple and common dish originating from the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama nations is salmon prepared on cedar planks or stakes. Salmon was abundant in the many rivers that flowed through the lands of these Native communities. Not only did it serve as an accessible source of protein for these peoples, but it was also an indicator species, meaning that its population quantities served as a good marker of the natural environment in the region. A healthy salmon population signified the cleanliness of water sources and the density and diversity of various other species. Traditionally, the fish was skewered onto cedar stakes and cooked over an open fire, with the smokiness of the wood adding to the flavor of the salmon. To make this dish at home, soaked cedar planks can be used to achieve the same flavor profile in an oven or a grill.
A dish crucial to the survival of cold winter months was pemmican, a meat jerky often combined with berries. Pemmican can be made with any type of animal protein, ranging from elk to duck to salmon. Due to the dehydrated nature of this product, it could be stored for longer periods of time and had a high energy density, ideal for winter when fresh game, fruits and nuts weren’t available. Today, pemmican can be utilized in instances for which its storage and nutritionally dense properties would come in handy — such as long hikes!
Another hearty dish well-suited for the winter season is Tanka-Me-A-Lo, also called Buffalo Stew. This dish is believed to have come from the Cherokee nation. It is made by stewing buffalo meat (although for at-home preparation it can be substituted for regular beef) together with tomatoes, celery, carrots, potatoes and barley. A fairly simple dish to prepare, cook this stew for your Thanksgiving table as a warm and comforting main course.
I consider succotash to be an autumn staple and make it every year, putting a personal twist on the dish by adding roasted squash. I also find that while cedar-smoked salmon may require some extra effort, the process always ends up being worth it and truly levels up the typical seafood entree. Corn husks and cedar wood planks can sometimes require some searching, but oftentimes specialty grocery stores can provide these. For these recipes, getting ingredients at a local farmers market, if available, can yield incredible flavors while also supporting your local farmers and small businesses.
A version of this article appeared on p. 7 of the November 14, 2023 version of the Daily Nexus.