America’s First Foods: Cherokee elder’s cookbook celebrates the old ways
By Colby Dunn • Correspondent
This week, kids across America will learn the story of the first Thanksgiving. How the pilgrims, beleaguered and starving, broke bread with their Wampanoag neighbors, who extended a helping hand, teaching them to grow the corn and squash that kept them alive. They celebrated a meal to give thanks that at least some of them had survived the first winter, and that they finally had a successful harvest. So in terms of how we celebrate today, the timing, at least, is right.
The menu, however, is pretty far from what it used to be. Though there’s only one written account of the first thanksgiving, what it does mention are foods introduced to the settlers by their Native American compatriots – venison, duck, waterfowl, corn porridge, cabbage – that represented our nation’s earliest culinary heritage. Before the Mayflower bumped into Plymouth Rock, depositing the precursors to modern America, Indian nations up and down the country had their own rich gustatory histories that stretched back sometimes centuries and were flavored with the unique ingredients and tastes of each region and tribe.
Today, those recipes have faded into near obscurity, replaced by food brought in by wave after wave of immigrants flocking to the United States since her birth, and more and more by processed foods filling the shelves of big box stores.
Johnnie Sue Myers is trying to change that. Myers is a Cherokee elder with the Eastern Band of Cherokee who is trying to bring back the old ways, one dish at a time. Her cookbook, The Gathering Place, is filled with recipes that were handed down in Cherokee families for generations, interwoven with the influences of German settlers and flavors from other folks who have called Western North Carolina home over the years.
Myers gathered the recipes together, in part, because many of them exist only in the minds of older tribal members, and in just a few years’ time could be lost completely.
“A lot of those recipes haven’t been documented for this area,” said Myers. “These recipes that I use, it’s kind of like a basket. They’re interwoven with Appalachia.”
Indeed, the pages of her book are stocked with regional delicacies that mix traditional Cherokee flavors with techniques picked up elsewhere.
“Salt pickling was brought to us by the Germans, and other different nationalities moved here as well,” said Myers, and pickle dilly, a cured, pickled, salted concoction of corn, green tomatoes, cabbage and green beans, is still being made in Cherokee thanks to their influence.
Though her recipes are not exactly what you’d find in your average Jamie Oliver or Betty Crocker tome, Myers says that most of the ingredients can be found in every cook’s pantry, or gathered locally. Since gathering and publishing the collection, she’s seen a spike in interest in traditional Cherokee eating.
“People have started cooking,” said Myers. “They want to cook like their grandmother cooked, or their husband has decided that he’s going to start hunting now. There has just been a lot of interest sparked in the last five or six years.”
That kind of interest, especially from a younger generation of budding cooks, is exciting to Myers, because it perhaps signals a move to healthier eating, and a move away from the drive-through and back to the family table.
“I think that families need to start becoming a unit again, especially at mealtime. At mealtime, you find out who likes who, who’s doing what in school, if you just listen, that’s where you’re going to get any information you need to know about your children. To me that’s one of the most important times,” said Myers.
In fact, her own talent and passion for cooking blossomed from a desire to have just that. Myers was the child of a father often away working, and a mother she describes as a workaholic, so as a young girl, she was charged with caring for her two sisters.
At 7, she began to frequent the neighbor’s house with her sisters, and was fascinated by what she saw there.
“I would sit and watch, and as long as we were quiet and didn’t touch anything, we could watch,” explained Myers. “I think that’s probably the thing that prompted me to start cooking. I liked the family unit. That’s what I wanted, and I found it.”
She then raised five sons with her husband, Sony, and is now teaching her grandchildren to cook, as well.
To be sure, many of Myers’ recipes do require a bit of work — learning to identify and gather berries or traditional sochani, seeking out wild ramps, getting the hang of basic pickling and canning techniques — but to Myers, these aren’t skills that are born, they’re simply taught and refined.
“You know what makes a good cook?” asked Myers. “Practice. It’s like anything else.”
And with the economy still putting a strain on many families, reclaiming some of the old ways could provide a healthier alternative that’s actually cheaper. Myers and her husband barter for many of their ingredients, and hunting and gathering ingredients isn’t just a way to feel more connected to your food, it’s cheaper as well.
Though her next book isn’t going to be a traditional Cherokee recipe book, Myers is glad she took the time to write these recipes down. She also learned much from her grandmother, who “never spoke English but was a very good cook.” But now, it’s her generation who are the grandmothers, and many aren’t practicing the knowledge, or exposing a younger generation to the rich history (and equally rich flavors) of the Cherokee kitchen.
The interest in her book gives her hope, however. No, it’s not normal to eat groundhog or squirrel or even venison, but maybe it could be, and maybe it should be.
“People are interested in the recipes now because they realize that maybe they need to change their eating habits. Processed foods are going to kill you, and we need to get back to the basics,” said Myers.
And with her book stocking the shelves of more and more kitchens, and a cooking class on the calendar this spring in Franklin, she’s doing her part to show people the way.
Candy Roaster Pie
by Chef Johnnie Sue Myers, Author, "The Gathering Place"
1-9" deep dish frozen pie shell
2 Cups of pureed candy roaster
2 Eggs slightly beaten
3/4 Cup sugar
2 and 1/2 oz. evaporated milk
2 tbs of Cinnamon
1 tsp of Nutmeg
Pre-heat oven to 425 F
Mix all ingredients well, pour into frozen pie shell and bake at 425 F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 F and bake 1 hour or until filling is firm.
Check by inserting a tooth pick into the filling, if it comes out clean, the pie is done.
Let set 30 minutes before cutting.
Serves 6 to 8
Candy Roaster Squash - "This heirloom winter squash was originally developed by the Cherokee people. The name 'Candy Roaster' was probably a rough translation of a traditional Cherokee name for the species.
Candy Roaster squash comes in many different sizes (from 10 to 250+ lbs), shapes (round, cylindrical, teardrop, blocky, etc.), and colors (pink, tan, green, blue, gray, or orange), yet the most common varieties have fine-textured orange flesh. This variety enjoys continued popularity, particularly in the southern Appalachian mountains ..."
Sweet And Sour Venison Meatballs
by Chef Johnnie Sue Myers, Author, "The Gathering Place"
If you’re looking for something to do with that buck you snagged on your last hunting trip, venison meatballs can make a nice addition to an otherwise turkey-heavy table.
• 1 Lb. ground Venison
• 2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice and Extra Virgin Olive
• Oil Spray
• 1- 8 oz jar grape jelly
• 2 teaspoons of Seasoning salt
• 1- 8 oz. jar cherry jelly
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 cup hot ketchup
• 2 eggs beaten
• 1/2 Cup chili sauce
• 1/2 Cup fine chopped onions
• 1/2 Cup of corn starch
Preparing the meat:
Remove ground venison from original packaging and place in freezer bag, place in refrigerator overnight or for at least eight hours so ground meat can bleed out.
This is an excellent way to thaw and to bleed out excess blood at the same time. Removing excess blood does not remove any of the nutrients.
In mixing bowl place meat, add 2 teaspoons of seasoning salt and 1 teaspoon salt and a pinch or two of black pepper, 2 beaten eggs and cup of fine chopped onions, mix well.
Pinch off enough mixture to form a small ball, (I usually gage my meatballs by pinching enough to fill the cage my fingers make when my hand is closed and all five fingers come together.)
Deer meat has a lot of water in it so you will notice shrinkage after cooking.
Pre-heat oven to 350 F
Place the meatballs on a cookie sheet sprayed with Extra Virgin Olive Oil to prevent sticking.
Cook 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and place in slow cooker. Cover, setting on low.
The meatballs can also be fried in 2 tablespoon of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, but you must turn often to insure proper cooking. By cooking in the oven this gives you time to prepare the sauce
Sweet and Sour Sauce:
Place Cherry Jelly and Grape Jelly in cooking pot with setting on medium, stirring constantly to prevent scorching, melt to liquid stage.
Add lemon juice, hot catsup and chili sauce.
Mix enough water with the corn starch to dissolve into a thin paste pour into the jelly mixture stirring constantly until the sauce thickens. Turn down heat and let simmer for 5 minutes the corn starch needs to cook.
Pour gently over the meatballs in the slow cooker, replace lid. Let simmer for no longer than 1 hour, Please do not over cook, the meatballs will be very dry with no flavor. The meat balls can also be kept warm in the oven in a baking dish, cover with foil after adding the sauce, do not over cook.
Tip: This meatball receipt makes great meatballs for spaghetti. Just add to your favorite sauce.
To see more, visit Myers’ website, www.cherokeecooking.com.