Thanksgiving Native Harvest
Air Date: Week of November 22, 1996
Joseph Bruchac, Abenaki tribe member, author and storyteller talks with Steve Curwood about what recipes the Abenaki might be cooking this time of year. One of Joe Bruchac's recent books is titled American Gardening: Projects, Activities and Recipes for Families.
CURWOOD: The leaves have fallen. There's a chill in the air. Indeed, in some parts of the United States there is now snow on the ground. And many turkeys are counting their final days. It can only mean one thing: Thanksgiving is nearly here. The annual holiday enacted by Abraham Lincoln coincides with long-established Native American harvest celebrations. Joe Bruchac, an Abenaki storyteller, is co-author of Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families. I asked Mr. Bruchac what the Abenaki might be cooking up this time of year.
BRUCHAC: Well, one thing that we have in American culture is the celebration of Thanksgiving, but within the native cultures here in the northeast we had not one Thanksgiving but many Thanksgivings. In fact, you were supposed to give thanks every day; that was the first teaching that our Creator gave us: always be thankful. Give thanks to those things that give life to you. The harvest festival that would be taking place right now, the big harvest festival, is the one that is closest to the traditional Thanksgiving. And as I'm sure you know, the people of Europe got the idea of Thanksgiving from Native Americans, and their survival here in Massachusetts in the Plymouth Colony was only made possible by native people such as Squanto, who taught them how to plant corn and beans and squash.
CURWOOD: And then just briefly, here we don't have a lot of time for a story, but we couldn't have you here without hearing one.
BRUCHAC: One story that I'm particularly fond of that has to do with this harvest time is the story of Nibun Amonba.
CURWOOD: Okay. Nibun Amonba?
BRUCHAC: And I'll explain that to you; I'll tell you the story briefly first. Long ago, they say, there was a man who was a good planter. His name was Noth Kikad, which means He Who Plants. But one year it seemed as if everything went crazy. When he planted his plants the first time, it became cold and everything froze. He planted them a second time; the rain fell down so hard it washed all the seed away. A third time he planted and this time insects came in and ate everything. A fourth time, and the crows flew down and pulled out all the plants. By now he had used all of his seeds, and by now it was late in the year. Too late for them to plant and grow crops. In fact, the leaves were changing color and there was a bit of snow in the air. But instead of complaining about his fortune, this man prayed to the Creator and gave thanks for all he had been given before. And as he slept a dream came to him, and he heard the voice of the Creator saying, "Because you have been so thankful for all you have been given, I am giving you a special gift: seeds that you can plant and a time at which to plant them." When he woke the next morning, the sun was shining. It was as warm as if it was still summer. He had there, sitting at the base of his bed, a bag full of big seeds that he had never seen before. They looked like corn and beans and squash but they were very large. He went outside and planted them. By the time he had finished planting his field, those seeds had grown. By the end of a week they had grown to the size that they could be harvested. And he gathered in enough to support himself and his family and his village through the winter. Now, those seeds no longer exist, but every year to remind us to be thankful, that time comes back, given by the Creator. We call it, in English, Indian summer. In Abenaki we say Nibun Amonba: a person's summer. That gift from our Creator to remind us to be thankful.
CURWOOD: There's a basic underlying principle about food and people that comes through in your book on Native American gardening.
BRUCHAC: I think that one thing that you find within native cultures is an understanding that we are not alone in the world. That we are not completely in control in the world. And so, instead of giving thanks for our food, we give thanks to the food plants that sustain us. As if by recognizing their contributions, they would produce more and continue to sustain us.
CURWOOD: What's your favorite recipe in here?
BRUCHAC: I think probably my favorite recipe at any given time changes, but one that's very common for where we are right now is this one that is called Johnny Cakes. Of course, Johnny Cake is associated with the New England area, and it is a traditional Native American dish.
CURWOOD: It's Rhode Island.
BRUCHAC: That's right. Johnny Cake is basically a cornmeal cake.
CURWOOD: Mm. Can you just briefly give us the Johnny Cake recipe?
BRUCHAC: Sure thing. A cup of stoneground white cornmeal, a pinch of salt, 2 cups of boiling water, 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, three quarters of a cup of light cream, and one quarter of a cup of oil for frying. This is a fried cake. You mix the cornmeal and the salt together. You scald the dry mixture with boiling water, gradually adding the water as you stir rapidly, about a half a cup of water at a time, working out the lumps until you have a smooth batter. And that's when you stir in the maple syrup. And if you like it sweeter you can put in more. You cool it a bit. You thin it with some cream until it's about a medium consistency so that it doesn't run too fast when you pour it into the pan. And then you pour it in the same way you would a pancake, and you fry it just like a pancake, and cook it about, oh, 5, 6 minutes per side. This is on a medium flame. And the Johnny Cake, you can let it dry out or you can eat it warm.
CURWOOD: Mm. I didn't know that the Native Americans would have kept cows so you'd have milk. What would be the traditional --
BRUCHAC: Well, you wouldn't use milk as a traditional ingredient. This is more -- you can actually do it without the milk. That would be fine without the milk. You could use water.
CURWOOD: Uh huh.
BRUCHAC: But this is Ella Sacotal's recipe and who am I to complain? Ella is an elder of the Narragansett Nation. (Laughs)
CURWOOD: (Laughs) And it's delicious.
BRUCHAC: It is, it's very good.
CURWOOD: Well thank you very much for taking this time with us today.
BRUCHAC: You're welcome.
CURWOOD: Joseph Bruchac's book is called Native American Gardening: Stories, Projects, and Recipes for Families, and actually his latest book is called The Roots of Survival: Native American Storytelling and the Sacred. Thanks for taking this time with us.
BRUCHAC: Thank you.
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