Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Seven Nations: Native Americans


Poverty Point

In order to discover the seven nations and their individual contributions to the table at Restaurant R’evolution, we must begin at the beginning: Native America. Native American culture in Louisiana has existed in the lower Mississippi River Valley for more than 4,000 years, in a place known as Poverty Point. At the time Ramses II was ruling Egypt, Moses was leading the Israelites from bondage and Rome had not yet been founded, Native Americans were living near present-day Delhi, Louisiana. Evidence suggests that they were a trade nation and conducted business throughout the Ouachita, Ozark and Appalachian mountains as well as the Great Lakes region. 

This nation built mounds around their town and pits suggest that there may have existed a municipal water system, fish ponds or farms where a fresh fish supply could exist. Excavations failed to reveal corn, beans or squash, so it's doubtful that these people were farmers. There was probably no need for agriculture because this part of Louisiana teemed with wild plants, game and fish providing a year-round harvest of food without cultivation. Perhaps the most fascinating Poverty Point discovery was the peoples’ ingenious use of in-ground ovens for cooking. Small clay cooking balls were molded from river mud into different shapes and sizes, each creating a different BTU output when heated in wood fires. Yes, they utilized hot rock cooking to prepare their meals.  
1720 Colonial Louisiana, Mississippi River
and Native American tribes

By the time Columbus discovered America in 1492, Native tribes such as the Atakapa, Caddo, Tunica, Natchez, Muskogean and Chitamacha tribes shared a common language. The Atakapa people were coastal, living from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bayou Teche. The Caddo people lived near present-day Shreveport; the Tunica near present-day Vicksburg; the others were scattered from Natchitoches to Lake St. Joseph and from Marksville to Alexandria and south.

Before agriculture, hunting and fishing were the natives’ primary food sources. Domesticated animals were unknown to them, and their relationship with wild game and seafood was almost sacred. After the kill, Native American hunters thanked their prey and even said prayers over the bounty. 

The communal hunt

Many believe Native Americans might have been the first wildlife conservationists. They thinned out sick animals, burned the forests to kill ticks and vermin, and one Choctaw chief even regulated deer hunting.The Natchez conducted communal hunts. Several hunters would surround a deer, driving it from side to side until it could be taken by the group. They would then field dress and dry the meat to reduce its weight for the voyage home. They were great butchers, cutting meat in long strips along the muscle, especially from the roast, ribs and shoulder, giving them a steady supply of different cuts of meat throughout the season. When an animal was harvested the meat, skeleton, brain, tongue, liver and heart were consumed. Bones were converted into tools, jewelry, fish hooks, needles and knives. Eventually, tanned hides were made into clothing. 

Catfish, choupique and
spoonbill catfish, as
illustrated by an early

In the swamps of Louisiana, Native Americans ate muskrats, beavers, opossums, wasps, beetles and lizards. Birds including wild turkeys, quail, ducks and geese were caught on river banks or in shallow water using nets designed to be thrown to capture the prey. Wounded birds were often used as decoys to attract other birds to the area. Near the shallow coastal waters and bays red fish, speckled trout, flounder and mullet were found. Under torch lights made from fat pine and dried cane, fish were speared at night. Fish were often poisoned using horse chestnuts or buckeyes, root of devil’s shoestring or green hickory nuts.  Oysters were abundant in lakes next to Lake Pontchartrain. The Natchez Indians travelled to the mouth of the Mississippi to gather oysters, which they preserved by smoking. They also sought brackish water clams and preferred them to oysters in many cases because of the ease of gathering and opening them. Crabs were available in both fresh and salt water, and refuse heaps show evidence of crawfish and shrimp consumption, as well as turtles, alligators and even snakes. 

An abundant supply of wild plant food may have delayed the acceptance of agriculture among many tribes here in the Bayou State. They used approximately 250 edible wild root plants such as ground nuts, wild sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and smilax. In Louisiana, the natives enjoyed an abundance of semi-tropical fruit including maypops, mayhaws, plums, wild grapes, persimmons, wild strawberries, blackberries and pawpaws. 

Sassafras leaves

Filé powder or pounded sassafras leaves, used to flavor Louisiana gumbo today, was an important ingredient to Louisiana’s indigenous people.  The stems, blooms, bark, leaves and roots of wild plants were used both nutritionally and medicinally.  As late as the 1930s a Houmas Indian medicine man identified 79 plant cures.  Herbalists carefully observed nature and noted that gathering medicinal herbs was critical to season and time of day.  Medicines were generally made into teas, though poultices were created for healing purposes as well. 

Eventually, Native American tribesmen became farmers and agriculture often influenced where they settled. They preferred to live in areas where rich, fertile soil and natural levees existed to prevent flooding. Corn, beans and squash, which came from Mexico, were staples among Native Americans here in Louisiana. 

Louisiana Native American women weaving cane baskets, 1923

Native Americans became excellent cooks, preparing food by boiling, broiling, roasting, baking and poaching. Small animals were cooked whole and meat was never eaten raw. Soups, porridges, mush and stews often were created using a multitude of ingredients. The Natchez were said to have had 42 ways to prepare corn. It was common for Native Americans to prepare special meals for important guests. Many early explorers, who recorded visits with native tribesmen in their journals, were served corn dishes with boiled turkey and roasted venison as well as smoked bear tongues and paws. 

The Native Americans were masters at sun-drying, salt-curing and smoking meats to infuse flavor. Wild woods such as persimmon, blackberry or the root of the sassafras tree were burned to impart unique smoked flavors to their fish and game. 

Native persimmons

strong Native American influence will permeate our menu at Restaurant R'evolution. Sassafras will dust the rims of our gumbo bowls and persimmon wood smoke will flavor duck breasts. The Native Americans had a theory: Watch what animals eat and prepare the game with like fruit and nuts for flavor. So naturally, wild fruits and berries will infuse our game sauces. I am certain that our homage to Louisiana’s Native Americans and their exquisite natural flavors will be endless.

1 comment:

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