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,
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' 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:
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...
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 squirrels...my 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!