Southern, Low Country, Creole, Soul and Cajun dishes are arguably the most American contributions to the world of gastronomy. Each of these styles of cooking grew from the foundations of Native American ingredients and cooking techniques, onto which traditions from other cultures were layered. Every time you bite into the warm, moist, nuttiness of shrimp and grits or savor the smoky rich goodness of BBQ ribs at your favorite joint, thank the ingenuity of the Native people of America.
Every Cherokee tended a garden. My grandmother once said, “No respectable Cherokee would be without a garden.” They often were on the banks of a creek, making it easy to water in the summer months. But, the gardens weren’t so much for eating right away. They were for storing up food for winter. You had the bounty of the woods in the spring, summer and fall. What you found there far exceeded anything you could grow in a garden.
Growing corn was a must. There were three types: white corn, yellow corn and a mixed color corn that had white, yellow and red kernels. All were eaten fresh from the garden, but most of the crop was either dried as whole kernels or ground into meal.There was also a special corn called Eagle Corn that was used in ceremonies. It was purple but had the outline of a bird with outstretched wings on it, like an eagle in flight.
In the garden also were beans of various kinds climbing a scaffold made of cane poles or the stalks of corn. They all looked like green beans when they were young and hanging on the vine. But if allowed to dry you could see the striations and colors that made each variety unique. Growing low were crops like pumpkins, melons, potatoes and tomatoes.
When the Europeans arrived they didn’t quite know what to do with these crops. Some thought they were inferior and stuck to the foods they knew from Europe. It was really the poor people and slaves who first adopted the foods of Native Americans and began experimenting with them. To water cornbread they added wheat flour and eggs, to green beans they added bacon, to grits they added cheese and butter and to tomatoes they added sugar and pasta.
The Cherokees adapted their cooking as well. They incorporated things like flour into traditional cornmeal breads and batters to make then lighter. They added sugar to traditional desserts like grape dumplings and huckleberry bread to compliment the traditional sweetner “kah-sel-tsi”, made from the honey locust pod. One of the biggest changes was switching from bear grease to hog lard, thanks to the 200 or so pigs that accompanied the explorer Hernando DeSoto. This has evolved into the creation of the post-colonial Cherokee culinary phenomenon called a Hog Fry.
Today, it is difficult to separate traditional Native cooking from the various cuisines of the American south. Just know that if your dish is made with corn, cornmeal, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkin, crayfish, catfish, venison or quail, to name a few, give a thought to the Native people who shared this food with the world.