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Native American Cooking

When white settlers came to the area that later became the United States, they interacted with the many native peoples in various ways. Violent, often genocidal conflict occurred, but so did periods of relatively peaceful coexistence, depending on the highly varied groups of both whites and Native Americans who were involved. The history is complex. Through it all, both groups had to grow foods and raise animals, harvest them, prepare food, and eat. Each affected the other in dramatic ways.

Europeans quickly incorporated several major Native American staples into their diet. The “three sisters” of the North American eastern woodlands—beans, squash, and especially corn—kept many a settler from starvation; corn would become a mainstay of the American industrial agricultural and livestock industry. The turkey was a native bird, the cranberry a native fruit, hence the American traditional Thanksgiving table has a real debt to pay to native foodways. The Europeans for their part brought wheat, cattle, sheep, pigs, domesticated fowl, and many fruits and vegetables.

European explorers and trappers borrowed several meat preserving techniques from Native Americans. Jerky is made from salted, dried strips of meat; pemmican is ground dried meat preserved with ground berries and rendered fat. These foods are the ancestors of the modern jerky sold as a snack today all over the United States.

Wild rice is a native grass (not actually a form of rice) that has a tasty, chewy texture; it is an expensive luxury food grown in the greatest quantities in the north central United States, particularly Minnesota. The wild rice can be harvested only by the labor intensive process of gathering the stalks by hand using a canoe. In some areas, Native American tribes have legal control over the harvesting and processing of the delicacy.

Many foods of the southeastern United States are adaptations from original techniques used by native tribes, the Cherokee being the most prominent. The legacy includes fried green tomatoes, cornbread, hoecakes (cornmeal pancakes), bean bread, many peanut dishes, and the cultivation of the southern green called ramps.

In the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, the indigenous technique of plank roasting salmon and other fish is used by fine restaurants and outdoor cooks alike, and certainly by the tribes themselves. The cook seasons the salmon and affixes it to a board of fragrant cedar or alder wood for baking. In the traditional method, the tribe having a feast, or potlatch, would suspend the salmon on cedar planks above (but not touching) an open fire. The flavors of the fish, wood and smoke meld; the dish is a mainstay of Pacific Northwest cuisine today.

The Native American tribes of the American southwest, while not immune from stress and persecution by Europeans during the eras of Spanish, Mexican and ultimately American control, have by and large seen less dislocation than have other tribes, for example the Cherokee, who have endured a number of forced migrations. Corn is the center of the food culture; it is referred to in various native languages as sister, maiden, or mother, a benevolent sustaining force. White, blue, red, speckled and yellow corn varieties are used; dried corn is favored for its storage and keeping qualities.

Groups of Native Americans still bake corn in large amounts in a community fashion at harvest time by digging a pit in the ground. They line the pit with rocks, burn dried wood over the rocks for several hours to reduce it to embers, cover the embers with corn husks and stalks, cover it all with ears of corn, cover the lot with more stalks and husks, pour water over the pit, bury it in canvas and dirt, and leave it overnight. The roasted corn that results may be eaten then and there, dried in the sun, or frozen for later use.

Hominy, also called posole (and the basis for the popular stew of the same name), is a versatile product made from dried corn. In pre-Columbian times, both the Aztecs and Mayans of Mexico (but not the Peruvian Incas) discovered that soaking corn in ashes made it both digestible and easier to use as an ingredient. The process of soaking corn in lime (the chemical provided by the ash) is called nixtamelization; in scientific terms the lime breaks down the thick walls of the corn kernels and allows the protein inside to be absorbed. Once processed this way, the nutritious corn can be ground into a meal, pounded into tortillas, made into tamales, or added as a thickener to stews. Cornbread and corncakes, corn soup and many stews using corn are typical results.

Despite the similarity in nomenclature between many dishes of the Native-American southwest and the Mexican, Tex-Mex, and New Mexican dishes also enjoyed in the region, the Native American dishes are always distinctive, often reflecting a subtler use of spices, like juniper and the local azafrán, a saffron-like powder derived from the safflower plant. Prized recipes differ from pueblo to pueblo, tribe to tribe. The Native-American cook will be as likely as anyone else to mix traditional staples with modern commercial ingredients. Squash, in its many varied forms including pumpkin, is much used; lamb, mutton and pork are favored meats. Native Americans will, of course, frequently eat mainstream American foods.

Unlike corn, chile peppers were not know in the American southwest before the Spanish introduced them from Mexico, but they are certainly popular in the region today. Fresh New Mexico green and dried red peppers (grown in several states) are the most common varieties, along with the jalapeño and its dried form, the smoked chipotle. Heat and flavor combinations will vary from people to people, as they do through the southwest. Chiles will combine with tomatoes in the distinctive salsas of the region.

Fry bread, originally an adaptation based on ingredients supplied by the federal government to Native Americans on reservations and now a bone fide specialty, is made from a simple dough of flour, salt, baking powder and water which is pounded flat and quickly fried in oil or lard, yielding a toothsome, puffed up delicacy. Some varieties may add lard or other fats to the dough. The fry bread may be enjoyed plain or with toppings. Adobe breads are thick yeast loaves still baked in the traditional outdoor wood-fired earthen ovens called hornos.