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Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Three Sisters that Saved Jamestown

Potomac Salad

When the English arrived at Virginia in 1607, they found a vast wilderness inhabited by Native Americans who had lived in the land of Tsenacomoco (the Native American name for the tidewater region of Virginia; a.k.a. the coastal plain that is east of the fall line) for centuries. The English arrived thinking that they could thrive in the "new world" by replicating English towns and English farms growing English foods. After the Starving Time of 1609 - 1610 where most of them died of starvation and disease, they realized just how wrong they were. Under the leadership of John Smith, the English began to learn that the key to survival in the "new world" was to adopt the ways of the native people that were thriving. That meant that the English would have to learn the ways of the "salvages."

A Patawomeck Pot traded to an English
Colonist. Analysis shows that a maize and
venison stew was the last food cooked in
it before it was discarded by the
colonist after his "Indian" meal.
Over the first three decades of English settlement in Virginia, the efforts of the Powhatan Indians saved the English colonists from death and starvation. The Patawomeck Tribe that established villages along the Potomac river in Virginia were particularly key to English survival. Many accounts of the early English colonists tell of the corn (maize), beans, and squash the Patawomecks supplied to the English saving them from starvation.

The 2009 United States Native American
$1 Coin Depicting a Native American
Woman Tending to a Milpa.
Today, the three crops of maize, beans, and squash are known as the three sisters. The Native Americans of the Southwest called their fields of maize, beans, and squash "milpas." Scientists have since learned that those three important foods grown together in the same garden complement each other; each providing benefits helpful to the other two. In the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, the milpa “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created.” Corn provided a natural pole for the bean vines to climb. Beans trapped nitrogen on their roots thus improving the overall fertility of the soil by providing nitrogen for next year's corn. The bean vines also helped stabilize the corn plants making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines served the same purpose as mulch shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating which improved the overall crop's chances of survival. The Patawomeck method of inter-planting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds is still a sophisticated and sustainable system for small gardens that provides long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet. And, today, corn (maize) is the most important crop in the world.

This Thanksgiving, take a look at your table. There is still much Patawomeck and Powhatan Indian influence at work even today. The turkey, corn (maize), beans, squash and pumpkin and North American varieties of nuts were all foods that the Natives of Tsenacomoco taught the English to hunt, grow, cook, and enjoy. There is no question that the three sisters saved Jamestown from disaster. And, the importance of those three foods are seen today more than ever.

To celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I decided to create a dish that, I think, captures the food preferences of both the English and the Natives of the 17th century. I call it "Potomac Salad." It is a dish with Patawomeck Native American ingredients seasoned with ingredients like the English would have used.

Potomac Salad

1 medium sized butternut squash
1 15.5 ounce can of kidney beans, rinsed
1 15.5 ounce can corn, drained
Bacon Fat, warmed until liquefied
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)
1 Tsp Dijon Mustard
1/2 medium sized red onion cut into thin strips
Salt & Pepper to taste
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper (optional; but I have strong reason to believe the English colonists in 17th century Virginia would have used it often instead of black pepper)

Peel and cut the squash into about 1" cubes. Reserve the seeds. Toss the squash with salt and pepper and a little bacon fat (Virginia smoked pork). Toss the seeds with a little bacon fat too. Roast the squash and seeds in a 350 F degree oven turning them once or twice until done. The seeds should be done in about 15 - 20 minutes. The squash should be done in about 30 minutes.

Make a vinaigrette using 4 TBS of bacon fat, 4 TBS of ACV, the mustard, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Add the corn, beans, roasted squash, onion, and vinaigrette to a skillet and heat over medium heat until hot. Use the seeds as garnish and serve as a side or by itself over mixed greens.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Carolina's First Female Pitmaster

Tuffy Stone, Mellisa Cookston, & Myron Mixon at the 2013 Barbecue Jamboree
in Fredericksburg, VA. Move Over Boys, the Ladies of Barbecue are Rising Fast!

Today, women are excelling in the barbecue world. No longer can it truly be said that the grill and the barbecue pit are the sole domains of the male gender. Women like Mellisa Cookston, Lee Ann Whippen, and Danielle Dimovski, and so many others have made a respectable mark on the modern and formerly male dominated activity of cooking barbecue. So, in honor of that, here is the earliest known account of a Carolina pitmaster who also happens to be a woman.

In 1709, John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina was published in London. In it, Lawson provides accounts of his exploration of the interior of Carolina in 1700 and 1701. The book contains accounts of native Americans, the natural history of the Carolina region, and a long list of words in various Carolina Indian dialects. The first part of the book contains Lawson's journal, followed by separate sections devoted to a description of North Carolina geography, produce, insects, animals, and fish, and of the Indians. Lawson's book has since come to be regarded as a classic of early American literature.

Lawson's account of arriving at the Waxsaw Landlord's cabin is of particular interest to barbecue buffs. At the time of his arrival, preparations were being made for a great feast among the Indians in commemoration of their abundant harvest of corn they had reaped the summer before. He describes the visiting ambassadors from another tribe, the painted faces, and, the result of English influence on the Indians, at least one of them was armed with a cutlass and a flintlock rifle (fusee).

Besides the Indian men, Lawson also described a woman he observed who was busy cooking. Describing her as a "She-cook" he marveled at how often she cleaned her hands while preparing the feast. This very well could be the first account of a female pitmaster cooking what is now considered American style barbecue in existence. In Lawson's account he describes a "cabin" near an outdoor English style kitchen managed by an Indian woman who cooked "barbakue" and "White-Bread." Couple that with the cutlass and flintlock and it's easy to see the strong influence the English had imparted to those Natives. While Lawson's "She-cook" may not be the first Carolina pitmaster, his account is certainly one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of anyone cooking American style barbecue in history.

At our Waxsaw Landlord's Cabin, was a Woman employ'd in no other Business than Cookery; it being a House of great Resort.  The Fire was surrounded with Roast-meat, or Barbakues, and the Pots continually boiling full of Meat, from Morning till Night.  This She-Cook was the cleanliest I ever saw amongst the Heathens of America, washing her Hands before she undertook to do any Cookery; and repeated this unusual Decency very often in a day.  She made us as White-Bread as any English could have done, and was full as neat, and expeditious, in her Affairs.