Indians were in Virginia long before English settlers arrived. With dining on our mind in this issue, we asked the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities for some insight into Indians and their food – which gave rise to some terminology familiar to us today. Here are excerpts from the foundation's Encyclopedia Virginia.
* Each family of Virginia Indians was largely self-sufficient. The men hunted, fished, fought off enemies, made their own equipment and trained their sons to do the same, while the women farmed, processed animal carcasses, collected wild foods, made household furnishings, cared for children and trained their daughters to do the same. The year's activities revolved around securing food in sufficient quantities to support such active lives.
* For many millenniums, boiling water was difficult. But by the Late Woodland Period (A.D. 900), technology had improved among the Powhatan Indians such that a large ceramic stew pot became the focus of family eating.
* Meats, shellfish and wild berries were all added to the stew, which boiled throughout the day. Rather than prepare set meals, family members who spent the day gathering food or doing chores added to the stew as able and ate from it as necessary.
* The Powhatan Indians used no condiments or flavorings of any kind with their food. They didn't make salt and could not abide the taste of wild onions. It's possible they enjoyed food for its texture rather than for its flavor, a preference documented in other cultures.
* Broth from meat stews was drunk with meals, along with spring water.
* Corn (maize) was the premier garden crop of the region. The paramount chief, Powhatan, was known to demand tribute from his subjects in corn, among other things, probably because one of his obligations as chief was to host large feasts.
* Elite households, prompted by the obligation to feed guests even during the lean times, preserved meats by smoking – a process the English colonists called "barbecuting." (Virginia Indians prized venison and bear meat over the meat of other land animals, probably because of the greater danger involved in procuring them.)
* Sometimes Indians turned corn kernels into hominy – a Powhatan suffix meaning "crushed with an instrument" – by soaking them overnight in water, beating them and then simmering them for 10 to 12 hours until the kernels were swollen and soft.
* Bread made of cornmeal was preferred over bread made from the flour of wild tubers – what the Powhatans called tuckahoe – perhaps because corn was scarce in some years and therefore more valuable.
* Corn flour was mixed with water to make dough, which was cooked in various ways. Appone – Powhatan for "bread," borrowed into English as "pone" – could be an ashcake, consisting of dough patted into a flat, broad cake and covered with leaves and then hot ashes. (A little water to wash off the ashes dried rapidly, and the cake was ready to eat.) Alternatively, it could be a dumpling, the dough being formed into a ball and boiled in a pot.
* Even the grouts, or hard pieces left over from pounding out flour, were used. Indians cleaned them of husk pieces in a sieve and then boiled them for several hours into a thickened pottage called ushuccohomen – "pounded corn," which is the origin of the tribal name Chickahominy.
FROM THE HARVEST
* Corn was consumed in a wide variety of ways and at various stages of ripeness. When the ears were fully formed but still green, cornstalks could be sucked for their sweet juice – one of the only sweets in the Virginia Indians' diet. They also enjoyed eating the unripe but sweet and juicy green corn kernels, which were either boiled or beaten to mush, rolled tightly in cornhusks and then boiled.
* In his "History and Present State of Virginia," published in 1705, Robert Beverley Jr. remarked that the Indians he knew – from tribes on the coastal plain and perhaps the Piedmont – did not eat wild "herbs or leaves," in spite of the fact that there were hundreds of wild, edible species growing in the region. He wrote that because of their active lifestyles, Virginia Indians instead preferred wild plant foods with more calories in them: fruits, nuts and starch-producing grains and tubers.
* Indians ate berries raw or added them to stew. Larger fruits like persimmons and wild plums were treated similarly or else dried to keep.
* Nuts and acorns were eaten raw or boiled; the oil that was rendered by boiling was saved for medicinal purposes. Indian cooks dried and later ground the sweeter nuts, removing their shells and stirring in water to make powcohiscora – or "nut-milk," which was considered a delicacy.
* Various wild grains, including wild rice (which grows in some freshwater streams in Virginia), were harvested in season, dried and later pounded into flour for bread-making.
* Indian cooks either roasted their meat and fish or cut it up – head, entrails and all – and added it to the family stew pot.
* The Indians domesticated beans and squash, boiling them to eat or drying them to keep.
* Deer suet was caught or strained off during cooking to be used as a spread for bread or for drying in cakes, which were then used in trade.
* Indian cooks either boiled or roasted oysters, using the heat to pop open the shells. Sometimes, they dried the oysters for trade.
* What is known of Indian cooking in this period is based on research about what wild foods were available, as well as eyewitness accounts from English colonists. Most of these accounts concern the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans, but they likely apply to the speakers of Siouan and Iroquoian languages in Virginia.