When a cookbook is re-issued these days, it often means it was a recent raging sales success, has been revamped for a different continent, or is now being offered in a new language. But when it's been twenty years, as is the case with Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking it's usually the recipes that make a re-issue worth a second look.
Here, the recipes appear largely untouched. A good thing, as this is an excellent, and timeless, cookbook. Well, perhaps other than the photographs. Though a press release describes the photos as “stunning,” we would be inclined to (politely) call them a bit dated. These are the sort of studio still life assemblages that involve things like a roast goose surrounded by carefully placed crab apples, with faux rock cliffs in the foreground and a sand-colored painted backdrop. A photo of salmon steaks grilled in the style of the Gitksan Tribe (with juniper berries over alder wood) is so disturbingly perfect, it looks like the distance between juniper berries may actually have been measured in millimeters. You get the idea.
But this isn't the sort of book you buy for the photographs, either now or when it was first published. You buy it for your library, to keep for another two decades. Or until you find the time to settle in for a long weekend brush-up on the types of foods native Americans ate in different regions, including your own. Or maybe you buy it under the guise of your kids' next school project, as the cookbook explores the customs, ceremonial uses of food, and traditional recipes of the Cherokee, Chippewa, Navajo, Sioux, Mohegan, Iroquois, Comanche, Hopi, and several other North American tribes (the book is organized by region).
For instance: “In California, the Hupa, Pomo, Mohave, Yuki and Luiseno used acorns from six species of oak as a highly nutritious staple food, once they discovered how to leach out their bitter tannic acid,” explain authors Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs. Edible wild plants (nuts, seeds, berries, fruits, greens), salmon along the coast, wildlife (deer, elk and rabbits), and insects like grasshoppers and army worms (small hairless caterpillars that were dried for the winter) were also common West Coast staples.
As we are reminded in the Introduction, in general, ground nuts were used for thickeners or used as flour for breads, and meats and vegetables were simply prepared and spiced with perhaps a few chiles. After a large mid-morning breakfast, pots of stew and dried foods were available all day for the snacking. And lest we attribute our etiquette rules wholly to European settlers, our hostess genes have have deep roots here: “If guests came by, they always had to be fed,” says Clara Sue Kidwell, who wrote the Preface. “Food was, and is, the common currency of hospitality in Indian communities.”
Inevitably, some of the recipe ingredients are harder to find today than others, depending on whether you live near a pond, in the middle of the desert, or adjacent to the 405. There are recipes for cattail pollen flapjacks and ember-roasted buffalo in the “Great Plains” chapter; Navajo lamb stew with corn dumplings and prickly pear cactus pads (nopales) with eggs and New Mexican chiles are among “The Southwest” chapter offerings.
And so most recipes, like that elk stew with acorn dumplings (the dumplings were traditional to the tribes of Northern California) offer up substitutions for tricky-to-find ingredients (you can substitute finely ground hazelnuts for acorn meal). But it is often the cooking techniques that are the most interesting throughout the book, as is the case with these homemade sausages cooled on a bed of fresh sage for a fresh flavor infusion.
A reminder that the most innovated cooking ideas need not always come in glossy $625, 6-volume Modernist Cuisine packages.
Buffalo Medicine Sausage
From: Spirit of the Harvest.
Serves: 4 to 6
Note: Per the authors, this “sausage was traditionally prepared from the flesh of a virile young bull by young, unmarried warriors. The cooked sausage was placed on a bed of fresh sage, an important herb in Plains Indian ceremonies, to cool. Each young man would then take a bite of sausage and say the name of the maiden he wanted to marry.”
1 ½ pounds ground buffalo or lean beef
Salt and pepper to taste
About 3 yards natural sausage casings
2 tablespoons rendered fat or vegetable oil (optional)
8 ounces fresh sage
1. Season the meat with salt and pepper and carefully stuff it into the sausage casings, taking care not to puncture the casings. Tie into 5-inch lengths.
2. Roast sausages in a preheated 375°F oven for 15 minutes to 20 minutes, or fry in fat until cooked through.
3. Place half the sage on a large piece of aluminum foil. Place sausages on top and cover with remaining sage. Wrap the tightly in the foil and let the sausage will cool in the sage for 1 ½ -2 hours.