Friday Food History: Indian Recipes (1967)

Dear Readers,

As many of you know, over this past winter I was immersed in tracking down my Cherokee roots.  I'm very distantly Cherokee, and I just look like your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Caucasian.  This kind of had me worried for awhile (should be claiming to be part of this super-cool tribe at all, or was I breaking some big cosmic rule here?).  Luckily for me, Wilma Mankiller once said,

An Indian is an Indian regardless of the degree of Indian blood or which little government card they do or do not possess.
— Wilma Mankiller, Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma (1985-95)


I've been researching Cherokee cookbooks since then, as part of an ongoing food history project about traditional Cherokee diets.  I mean, why go all the way back to Paleolithic times for a healthy diet, if you have examples of a hunter-gatherer tribe right in your own family?  

Unfortunately, it turns out that my hunt for Cherokee cookbooks was a very short one. I only found a handful of slim volumes, and of those, most were long out of print.  Either a) I'm cookbook-hunting in all the wrong places, or b) there really wasn't much published about traditional Cherokee cooking, which is a real shame if that's the case.

Here's one of the cookbooks I did find: 

Indian Recipes From Cherokee Indians of Eastern Oklahoma (Nettie Wheeler, 1967)

Mrs. Nettie Wheeler, who published this slim cookbook, led a long and fascinating life as a patron of the arts.  Her tearoom, The Sugar Bowl, was a popular gathering place for writers and artists in the town of Muskogee, Oklahoma from when she opened it in 1930 through the 1950s. When The Sugar Bowl was torn down as part of a town construction project (a parking lot, can you believe it?), she moved her headquarters to the Thunderbird Gifts and Antiques on U.S. Route 69. Mrs. Wheeler was a major patron of Native American art, having studied art in her youth at the Chicago Art Institute.  

One of the Native American artists whose brilliant but tragically brief career she promoted was Mr. Jerome Tiger, a Creek-Seminole, who also drew the lovely illustrations for this cookbook.  You can see many of his breathtaking paintings here; some of my favorites are "Stomp Dance" (1967) and "Agony" (1966).  The physical movement and intensity of emotion in Mr. Tiger's artwork is just stunning: I can't think of modern artwork I've ever seen that's quite like it.

Mrs. Wheeler tells us the story of how Indian Recipes came to be:

Mrs. Gibbons often cooked at the meetings and her Indian food was excellent. Her recipes had been handed down for 100 years by word of mouth, but had never been printed...I said, ‘What a wonderful cookbook this will make.’

Mrs. Gibbons' recipes will be familiar to those who know a little about Cherokee cooking: Bean Bread (and Dumplings); Sweet Potato Bread; Dried Corn; Wild Grape Dumplings; Fried Polk Stalks.  She includes recipes for cooking with wild game, such as this one for Baked Squirrel:

Dress a freshly killed squirrel and wash good. Rub inside of squirrel with lard. Bake him before the fire or in the oven until he is well brown. Cut the squirrel up and put in pot. Add a little water and cook until squirrel is done. Add a little meal to thicken for gravy and cook until meal is done.

Now I have to go track down a nice, fat squirrel to try out that recipe.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Gibbons doesn't go into how to dress a freshly-killed squirrel, most likely assuming that any cook worth her salt would already know how to do this.  Nor does she cover the various methods for killing the little guy. Yikes.

Mrs. Gibbons shares with us some of her home remedies on the back page of the cookbook, which I found fascinating, if frightening.  I will share  some of these with y'all, but only if you promise me that you will never try these remedies at home!  

Here we go...

NAIL PUNCTURE IN FOOT—Just soak a baking powder biscuit in warm milk and place on wound.

FOR SPRAIN—Get white oak bark and boil down low then soak sprain in it. Relieves pain.

FOR A COMMON COLD—5 drops of turpentine; 5 drops of camphor; 5 drops of kerosene; 1 teaspoon sugar. Take for 5 mornings.

That last remedy would most likely do you more damage than the cold! Who on earth thought up taking kerosene internally (it was a common remedy for many ailments100 years ago)?  Good heavens.  

This is such a cool Cherokee cookbook, although I may never attempt some of the recipes in its pages (I'm not so good at catching dogs, however, have cheerfully volunteered to try).  I'm forever grateful to Mrs. Nettie Wheeler for preserving these Cherokee recipes and bits of advice for us to enjoy!

Yours Truly,