Keeping Foods for Later Use:
How (and Why) Indigenous Peoples of the Woodlands Dehydrated Foods
It’s no secret that dehydration was the main Indigenous process used for preserving foods here in the Eastern Woodlands (and for those processing traditional foods in a traditional way, it still is). So let’s explore why it works, how it was done, what types of food were dried, and more.
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 food? 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. Keep in mind that shorter drying times reduced the risk of the food spoiling by inhibiting the further or major growth of bacteria. And drying foods to a brittle state and storing it dry greatly increased the shelf life of the food. So for dehydration to work well foods should be cut thin (like meat or squash), if not already small in size (like berries or beans), so that they could dry in the shortest amount of time, and stored away from moisture.
There were/are two main ways Eastern Woodland Peoples traditionally 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. 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 the Sun... and the Wind:
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 desired when sun drying - for gentle breezes to be present helping moisture in the foods to dry up quicker. 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).
Don't Let It Bug You:
We have been asked the question, "What about bugs getting to 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). Steady 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 could have 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.
Parboiling & Parching:
This may be a good time to bring up the practice of parboiling and parching. Parboiling (a quick boil) and parching (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. I have personally witnessed dry ash-treated hominy be almost impossible for a certain type of grain bug to infest though the same bug thrived on dry untreated corn.
Smoking Foods to Preserve Them:
While sun drying foods tended to be a more passive way of dehydration, smoking foods was a bit more labor intensive but it usually produced the best results. Not only did smoking foods put the food in direct dry heat (not high heat cooking temperatures but lower temperatures), but it also imparted residues from the smoke (oils from the wood being burned). Such residues partly coated the foods, adding a preservation barrier.
Curing meat was, in a sense, a whole other process that used salt (or sugar). Salt helps to dehydrate foods and inhibit bacteria growth. Salt curing has great antiquity in many areas of the world... but not everywhere. Many Northern Woodlands cultures didn't produce or have a taste for salt at the time of first European contacts, but their Woodland neighbors to the south and their Eastern Mississippian relatives of preColumbian times did procure salt. Yet such salt appears to have only been used as a condiment and not for curing. Even salt-consuming Native Peoples of the Eastern Woodlands relied on their age-old practice of smoke preservation for meats with no need or want for salt. These are just cultural and culinary preferences. (It's worth noting here that some Anishinaabe stored fish packed in maple sugar).
Getting Around the Morning Dew:
When sun drying, the cool night air and morning dew made it so drying foods may had been 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 preColumbian Peoples in what is now New Jersey, where 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. 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 currently en route to breed,… and collect mussels and clams. Because large amounts of fish were collected, and the fact that fish runs were seasonal, much of the fish caught there were likely preserved for later use. These areas paved with 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, warming the rocks in the process. And as the night got long and attendants may have settled in for the evening, these hot stones that had soaked in heat all day now released their heat through the night to early morning, possibly warding off moisture by radiating a dry heat to the food above. Stones have an amazing capability to capture and release heat, which is why they were used for pit baking, hot stone boiling and hot stone “grilling” - so was this just another hot stone cooking application? Very likely yes.
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. Eastern Peoples packed dried foods in containers and bags made of natural fibers, bark, and other materials before putting them away. 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 Lenape/Delaware 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 era Lenape pits found in New Jersey and adjacent areas could get up to 8 feet deep, while the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe utilized pits about 6 feet deep, and many pits excavated in Michigan tended to be shallower - no deeper that 4 feet.
Food was also stored aboveground, often in little structures separate of living quarters. Anishinaabe folks constructed small, a-framed storage structures covered with bark, in which maple sugar and wild rice were particularly stored in. Some horticultural societies kept separate family or communal store houses, and 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 lodges (longhouses/multi-family bark or mat covered structures, small 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 rafters.
Consuming Dried Foods:
Unlike the store-bought meat jerky or trail mix berries we consume today, many dried foods of the past could be harder. Many dehydrated snack foods we consume today have a higher moisture content, which is retained partly by the packaging, allowing 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 very dry, could be 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 often consumed it in powder form – a common practice. “Trail foods,” like jerked meat and parched corn, were often crushed in a mortar and the powdered meat was simply pinched into the mouth. (An exception is fish - 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 in a soft state,… in puddings and soups.
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 have been a very limited practice among a very few communities. Very little of it was observed, and limited evidence or tradition of it exists… It’s hard to estimate 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... One such 17th century observation speaks of Northern Iroquoian/Wendat folks preparing a corn dish by purposely submerging corn ears in water for months, then when ready to consume, roasting or boiling it with meat and fish. This culinary practice, noted once, wasn’t observed again nor survived as a tradition.
- "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.
To cite this article:
Diemer-Eaton, Jessica. (2014, October). Keeping Foods for Later Use. Retrieved from http://woodlandindianedu.com/dryingfoods.html