Keeping Foods for Later Use Why and How the Eastern Native Peoples Dehydrated Foods By Jessica Diemer-Eaton (originally published with Yahoo!Voices in 2013)
During WIEP’s public programs, we speak a lot about how the historic Native Peoples sun dried and smoked foods to preserve them for later use. As we often tell young children who wonder why many of our foods on display are dried: "Nobody had refrigerators back then, so they had other ways of keeping their food from going bad." So we thought it might be a good idea to dive further into this process and understand why dehydration works to preserve food for later use.
Water is the Enemy Dehydration, as the term implies, is the act of removing moisture from, in this case, foods, which in turn not only preserves it but makes the foods smaller in size and lighter in weight. But why does dehydration preserve the foods? Well, water in the food is also food for bacteria and fungus, both of which will rot the food if they have adequate moisture. By taking away the water, we take away the food source that encourages such microbial organisms to thrive on the food we want preserved.
Likewise, bacteria and fungus needs air, and by drying the skin (outside) first of many types of food drying (during the sun drying or smoking process) we can cut off any further air from the inside of the foods where it could possibly feed these harmful entities. But even with access to air, without moisture such bacteria and fungus will not get far. Keep in mind for dehydration to work well the foods must be thin and/or small so the drying process can reach the full interior within a certain amount of time.
There was two main ways the historic Native Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands dried their foods: with heat energy from the sun, and with heat energy from the fire (which included the benefit of smoke). Both could be utilized together, or depending on the foods, one method would be utilized over the other. According to some contemporary sources, fruits are more favored for the sun drying process while meats and vegetables are more often smoked (such a difference in methods seems to be based on the sugar content and acidity of the foods being dried). While we know there seems to be times historic Native Peoples did one or the other, possibly based on the food being a fruit or vegetable or meat, we don't have enough evidence to say this was the pattern always followed. For example, if squash rings/strips, a fruit, were hung in a longhouse to dry, then it dried as it received a dose of smoke from the interior cooking fires indirectly. Also, some suspect many Native Peoples hung fish in the sun, whether it was the whole drying process, or to start the drying process or finish it (in conjunction with smoking it). Whether we can apply this pattern to historic Native Northeastern food processing remains questionable, so we won't assume the drying process based on this contemporary-defined pattern. In fact, a clearer pattern may arise not based on the foods being processed, but on the environment the foods are processed in (particularly the humidity and winds).
Using the Power of Sunlight to Dry Foods As you can imagine, drying food in the sun required not only a clear, sunny day, but a day of little humidity. Humidity slows down, and can even halt the drying process when foods are placed in direct sun. According to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, a minimum temperature of 86 degrees with less than 60% humidity is best for drying fruits out-of-doors in the sun. With these two conditions, wind also has to be taken into consideration.
Air flow can in fact aid greatly to sun drying. Why? The low-humidity air that surrounds the foods soaks in the moisture from the drying foods. A light breeze can whisk away the surrounding moist air and replace it with dry air to again repeat the process - a continual supply of dry air. And not only does the wind circulate the air surrounding the moist food but it also helps to remove moisture from the surface of the food. In an example of air flow drying surfaces directly, think about hand dryers… the moving air separates water molecules from your skin (breaks them away from your skin and other water molecules) and usually sweeps them away with the moving air, thus resulting in your hands getting dryer faster. This is what is wanted when sun drying, for gentle breezes to be present helping the moisture "dry up" quicker from the foods. It is worth noting that heat makes air molecules move and vibrate more, and that in smoking foods (stepping away from sun drying for a moment), the warm, smoky air creates an updraft that will also help in dehydrating foods faster (when placed above the heat source, as many Native Peoples did when smoking).
We have received the question, "What about bugs getting into the food while it dries in the sun?" To be realistic, not too much could be done, with exception to the area in which the drying was taking place. One may chose to not perform sun drying in an area infested with bugs, or during a time of year when certain bug activities spike (hence, this may be one of those environmental reasons to smoke foods and not sun dry them). Gentle breezes that aided to drying could also discourage bugs. But we also have to consider the usual areas sun drying occurred, that being in villages or possibly dense fishing camps. In these areas, the numerous fires probably filled the air around the working space with smoke particles, and bugs don't tend to like such areas with smoke residues in the air and on the objects of the same area. Indeed, even if not smoking foods, the indirect smoke residues from nearby fires may have still attached to the drying foods, and these compounds surrounding the foods could have discouraged some bugs. It is worth noting here that some Native Peoples created insecticides of sorts on seeds to discourage bugs. If these compounds derived from plants were in fact quite safe for human consumption and possibly near tasteless (or pleasant in flavor), it may have been possible that some used such not only on their seeds but possibly on their foods to further protect their stores.
This may be a good time to bring up the practice of parboiling and parching. Parboiling (a quick boiling) and parching (fast dry roasting/charring) of a grain, nuts, seeds, etc. is efficient in killing bugs and larva already found in the food before the drying stage. Such practices were especially employed in the preparation of corn, beans, and wild rice for storage. It may also be possible that the usual practice of preparing some dishes may have also had benefits in discouraging bugs. The author has personally witnessed ash-treated flint hominy be almost impossible for a certain type of bug to live on while the same bug thrived on untreated corn.
Smoking Foods to Preserve Them While sun drying foods tended to be a more passive way of dehydration, smoking foods was certainly a more labor intensive route but it usually produced the best results. Not only did smoking foods put the food in direct dry heat (not of high heat cooking temperatures but of lower temperatures), but it also imparted residues from the smoke (oils from the wood being burned). Such residues partly coated the foods, adding to the preservation barrier between the food and the air.
Curing meat was, in a sense, a whole other process that used salt. Salt helps to dehydrate foods and inhibit bacteria growth. Salt curing has great antiquity all over the world, except in Eastern Native societies. Many Northeastern Woodland cultures didn't seemingly produce or have a taste salt aboriginally (particularly many of those of a maple sugar producing background), but their Woodland neighbors to the south and the Eastern Mississippian relatives of pre-contact times did. Yet such salt appears to have only been used as a condiment and not for meat curing. Even salt-consuming Native Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands relied on their age-old practice of smoke preservation for meats seemingly without salt.
Getting around the Morning Dew When sun drying, the cool night air and morning dew made it so drying foods had to be put under shelter every night. Likewise, unless fires were attended to all night, foods being smoked without cover might also need to be put up for the night or suffer the moisture that blanketed the outside with dawn. Constructing a “roof” over the drying rack was especially useful in smoke drying, but it would hinder sun drying. Was there then another way to get around the morning dew, without moving the foods inside or constructing a cover?
One such way to possibly get around the dew may have been exemplified by the pre-contact Native Peoples in what is now New Jersey. There archaeologists have uncovered large areas "paved" with river stones. Some stones showed evidence of being heated by fire, and some "paved" areas also revealed what appeared to be posthole stains under the stones. Why would anyone take the time to make such areas, some as large as 25 by 50 feet in size? Well, it might have had something to do with preserving foods, possibly fish and shellfish to be exact in these cases. These areas were located next to great fishing spots along the rivers, and it is theorized that families came to these camps to trap large amounts of fish en route to breed, as well as collect mussels and clams. Because large amounts of fish were collected, and the fact that fish runs were seasonal, then much of the fish caught were preserved for later use. These stones may have served as a warm plate on which shellfish were laid on - as the stones heated up in the sun, they released such heat back into the shellfish. The shellfish then reaped the benefit of heat sources from above and below, possibly cutting their dehydration time in half. Concerning the evidence of those stones that were burned and the postholes below them, these may have been drying racks built above the stones to which strips of fish meat were laid upon. Smoky fires were set below the racks on top of the stones all day, and as the night got long and most the attendants went to bed, the stones that were busy soaking in heat throughout the day now released such heat through the late night to early morning, possibly pushing back the moisture by radiating a dry heat to the food above. Stones have an amazing capability to make fire pits release heat far longer after the flames have died and the coals have cooled.
Storing Foods for Later Use While dehydrating foods was the first step in preserving them, proper storage was key to making sure they continued to stay edible for long periods of time. The Eastern Peoples were known to pack dried food in containers and bags made of natural fibers, bark, and other materials before putting up. One place to store dried foods was in the ground. Pits were dug and usually lined, often with clay, bark, reeds/grasses, or mats. Such pits could be used multiple times. The Delaware (Lenape) may have actually cleaned their storage pits with fire between use which would kill any mold build-up and destroy/discourage bugs. The depth of such pits could vary, which was probably based much on soil conditions and cultural practices. Late Woodand Delaware (Lenape) pits found in New Jersey and adjacent areas could get up to 8 feet deep, while Densmore notes the Ojibwe utilized pits about 6 feet deep, and many pits excavated in Michigan tended to be shallower at no deeper that 4 feet.
Food was also stored aboveground, often in little structures separate of living quarters. The Ojibwe were known to construct small, a-framed storage structures (covered with bark) to which especially maple sugar and wild rice were stored in. Some horticultural societies may have kept separate family or communal store houses, and even raised corncribs.
Most smoked and sundried foods can last for quite a while, at least up to a year and even longer with proper storage in dry spaces. One such dry place was located above the sleeping platforms in longhouses/multi-family bark or mat covered homes, wigwams, and wattle-and-daub homes near the ceiling area. This area tended be dry and even smoky, both conditions created by the interior fires of the home. Upper shelves were often created to hold baskets and containers of food in this dry and smoky area of the home; some foods were even suspended from the home’s upper framework.
Consuming Dried Foods Unlike the store-bought meat jerky or trail mix berries we consume from plastic packaging, dried foods of the past were much harder. Many dehydrated snack foods we consume today have a higher moisture content, which is retained partly by the packaging, which allows us to eat it dry, even if hard to chew (some, like fruits, also have sugar added). Dehydrated Native foods of the past, if kept correctly, were much harder and brittle (versus softer and chewy), and usually needed to be hydrated to consume. Most dehydrated foods were just added to the cooking pot in order to prepare for a meal. Even if a person wanted to consume jerked meat as trail food (without cooking), they consumed it probably in very small broken pieces that they could suck on until it broke down in the mouth (which took much longer time than today's mass produced jerky), or, as was commonly practiced with trail foods (like parched corn), the jerked meat was crushed in a mortar and the "powdered meat" was pinched into the mouth (note: this is in contrast to many varieties of jerked fish, which tended to be flaky and easier to consume dry in whole pieces). This powdered meat could also be combined with meat fat, berries, cornmeal, and/or bean-meal to create an energy food commonly known today as pemmican. However, jerky was often just hydrated by boiling and consumed soft.
Often we are asked about taste of dehydrated foods. Like any dried food, they tend to lack the full flavor they possessed fresh. This is why dried foods were many times seasoned with animal fats, nut oils, maple sugar and/or salt. Dried foods were also, at times, cooked with fresh foods, such as jerked deer boiled with ripe corn.
And Not All Foods Were Dried to Preserve: A Note on Spoiling Foods on Purpose Technically, dehydration wasn’t the only process utilized to keep foods edible for later consumption. Fermenting foods seems to be a practice among some historic Eastern communities, however based on what little data on this subject have made the records, it is hard to judge how common the practice may have been, or if in fact, if it was just as restricted as it appears to be. Likewise, it is unsure of whether fermenting foods was practiced mainly as a storage technique or as just a process to deliver a specific taste to a dish (which is very likely). In any case, it is worth noting as purposely fermenting foods was in fact a way to keep such foods for later use, not unlike the European tradition of making sauerkraut. One such 17th century description speaks of Northern Iroquoian/Huron folks preparing a corn dish by purposely submerging corn ears in water for months, then when ready to consume, roasting it or boiling it with meat and fish. According to Arthur Parker, no knowledge of decayed corn was recalled by his 20th century Iroquois informants.
Sources: - "Angel Site: An Archaeological, Historical, and Ethnological Study" by Glen A. Black - “Camp, Cache, Stay Awhile: Preliminary Considerations of theSocial and Economic Processes of Cache Pits Along Douglas Lake, Michigan” by Meghan C. L. Howey and Kathryn E. Parker - "How Does Smoking Preserve Food?" by Paul Telesco - “How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts” by Frances Densmore - “Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants” by Arthur C. Parker - "Preserving Food: Drying Foods and Vegetables" Edited by Judy A. Harrison, Ph.D., and Elizabeth L. Andress, Ph.D., Extension Foods Specialists, University of Georgia - "The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000BC to AD2000" by Herbert C. Kraft - "The Role of Salt in Eastern North American Prehistory" by Ian W. Brown - "Winds and Drying" from "Ask a Scientist" answered by ProfHoff and Ali Khounsary, Ph.D.