Food Nuts of the Eastern Woodlands
Before Cornmeal, There was Acorn-Meal:
It’s probably no secret that nuts have supplied the Woodland Peoples with an annual source of protein, oils and carbohydrates for thousands of years. And so before the corn came east, there was acorns… however after the corn came, there was still acorns! (for most) Some in the Woodlands region did continue to harvest and process acorns (in the age of maize) with just the same enthusiasm as the generations that came before, like those living on the east side of Michigan’s upper peninsula. Not only were acorns important there, but the carbohydrate and fat content complimented diets rich in fish – a good combo for the Peoples of this place. However most Eastern farmers, from the lower Great Lakes south to the Gulf Coast, didn’t rely so much on acorns as their ancestors had once had… The reasons for such can range from loss of resources (like over-clearing of lands) to lifestyle changes (time given to processing corn wins over time given to processing acorns) to just culinary taste (other tree nuts remain more popular after corn comes, like large-species hickory nuts). Nonetheless many never stopped the tradition of harvesting, processing and preparing dishes made from acorns.
Rich in carbohydrates and fats, acorns were also very abundant and thin-shelled… all the more reason to utilize them. The only problem was the noxious tannins they contained. While some like white-oak and burr-oak produced nuts with less tannins and could be eaten as is (often in low quantities), those with higher levels of tannin, like red-oak acorns, had to be leached before consuming. Given the traditions, it appears most acorns were put through the leaching process before being consumed (especially in the Northeast, where high-tannin acorns were often most abundant). Many traditions cite a hot leaching processing for acorns,… where the nuts meats were boiled and rinsed several times. Some included the extra step of submerging of acorns in a lye bath made of hot water and hardwood ashes (not unlike the hominy-making process… see Hominy). A Menominee tradition calls for the nuts to be parched and the meats boiled till almost cooked, then boiled again in clean water with wood ash before being strained from the cloudy mixture, and again simmered in new water to clean them of the lye residues. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) note that ashes were used to "remove the bitterness" – indeed as the leaching process progresses, the nuts become less bitter (as my taste-tester, nut connoisseur husband can attest to).
Leaching could also be done by a cold process… this was particularly demonstrated by Native cooks west of the Mississippi well into the historic period, but may had fallen out of vogue with many in the East where practiced. In a cold process, the nut-meats (whole, cracked, or ground) are submerged in a vessel of cool water, and the tannin-impregnated water is changed often. Possibly the use of a basin, molded out of sand, was used to hold acorns while draining water through, as some have practiced historically outside the Woodlands region. Or the nuts were submerged in running water, such as a spring or creek, in a woven bag or basket-container.
As for how the acorns were enjoyed historically, the examples are numerous. Many indulged in acorns simply roasted, whether over the fire on racks (Virginia/North Carolina area), or in the ashes (Anishinaabe/Ojibwe). One Haudenosaunee story speaks to the tradition... when the Flying Head was scared by a woman eating roasted acorns, thinking she was consuming hot coals instead. Roasting acorns was likely common practice, and not just for a quick snack but also as the first step to some recipes. Acorns were boiled whole and eaten alone, or added to soups and other dishes. They were particularly enjoyed with duck broth (Anishinaabe). Acorns were mashed and consumed. If ground, the resulting flour was often enjoyed in thick porridges or samps and could be made into dense cakes or added to corn breads. If wanted, the nuts could be stored for later use. Food storage pits and caches appear to have been the best way for keeping acorns (a truth abundantly clear to archaeologists).
Besides outright eating the nuts, acorns were often targeted for their oil. The red-oak acorn was a good oily nut in the north, while live-oak acorns were said to be used for its oil in the south. The basic method to extract the oil was by heating the acorns in water. Though many traditions list burr-oaks, white-oaks and others as most desirable (due to their flavor and lower tannin level), more than a few archeological sites (including food caches and fire features) have more evidence for red-oak use over other acorns containing less tannins. This is likely due to the fact that red-oak acorns have more oil… so regardless to the effort necessary to process them, the fat content apparently made red-oak acorns worth the time and energy.
Hickory - The Most Beloved Nut of the East:
While most think of acorns as always providing the largest resource of nuts, it was the hickory that provided not only the most sought after nuts, but many times, the most nuts, period. Several archeological sites throughout the Eastern Woodlands, from Archaic periods through Contact, yield evidence of dependence or preference for hickory nuts. After the coming of corn, the love of hickory never waned... At one archaeological site in Virginia, hickory nuts were as represented as corn!
Some have pointed out that because the hulls of hickory nuts were likely used as fuel (for fires), the charred remains of hickory nuts may be over represented… but the nutritional value (compared to other nuts), historical accounts, and traditions don’t lie – hickory nuts were possibly the most highly valued nut in the Woodlands. The fat content of hickory nuts can be three times or more than acorns (see post #21 for acorns) and twice as high as walnuts. And hickory nuts didn’t need to be leached like acorns, or carefully removed from tannin-soaked husks like walnuts and butternuts. And with minimal processing time, hickory nuts produced the most sweet and fatty nut milk… It’s easy to see why hickory nuts were a staple food nut for thousands of years.
Hickories didn’t lose much popularity with the coming of corn, or Europeans... Well into the Post-Historic Period, Muskogee (Creek), Cherokee, Lenape (Delaware), Carolina Natives, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and others carried on the tradition of indulging in the sweet flavor of hickory nuts (whole, meal and “milk”). Hickory nuts from shagbark and shellbark were, and still are, the favorites. The Cherokee removed to Oklahoma continued harvesting hickory nuts, only from the black hickory… a tree native mostly west of the Mississippi River. Even with change of land and trees, the tradition remained strong.
The love of hickory nuts can be seen in an iconic Cherokee dish “kanuchi” - a hickory nut soup: To make, hickory nuts were hulled of their thick husks, then the nuts (shell and all) were cracked in mortars with pestles. Large pieces of nutshell removed, the nuts were pounded again and sifted. With as much shell removed as possible, the oily hickory nut mass (including some very small, thin pieces of shell) were formed into large baseball-sized balls - “kanuchi balls.” When kanuchi was desired, the ball was dissolved with boiling water and served with hominy or the like, however today kanuchi is often served with rice in it (yes, it is a continuing tradition). Worried about little bits of shell might still be in your soup… then don’t sip up the last from the bottom of the bowl. Yep, it’s that easy. (Note: hickory nut soup/liquid is ancient among the Cherokee, with or without forming the nut-mass into balls before dissolving).
We often assume hickory nut-processing to be hard and time-consuming... Sure, the way we do it today! If we took a cue from the Indigenous Peoples who perfected the process, we’d know they too worked smarter... not harder. They understood that devoting time to processing the nuts in large quantities, and using the right methods and tools, ultimately saved both time and fingertips. Mid 18th c. Lenape cooks took handfuls of hickory nuts (in the shell) and cracked them in large wooden mortars made of tree trucks, and after being crunched a few times, threw the pieces into hot water where the shells separated and the nut meats could be easily retrieved – such could be ground even more into a meal or added to other dishes, including baby foods (more on Native baby foods later). And as exemplified by a Carolina area Native community in 1701, some just threw the beaten hickory mass straight into their hot meal to separate - into venison broth where the powdered nut meats dissolved and thickened while shell fragments fell to the bottom. It was then enjoyed. Again, if you don’t fancy nutshells, just don’t sip up the last at the bottom. All the benefits with none of the sore finger-picking, hurtful nail-splitting work.
Besides being consumed in a hot deer soup, these same folks also ground hickory nuts (with some shell) into meal, which was enjoyed as is… the sweet meal dissolved in the mouth and the shell pieces were split out (not unlike eating seeded fruits/berries). However it was probably the “milk” hickory nuts produced that was a most desirable product. While hickory nut soups (or anything with hickory nuts in it) made for a luxurious food, it was the act of purposely beating the nut meats in warm water and isolating the liquid (a whitish substance) that made hickory nut milk, “milk.”
“This they call by a name that signifies Hiccory milk; it is as sweet and rich as fresh cream, and is an ingredient in most their cookery,…” –William Bartram (late 1700’s).
The name "hickory" is derived from the Eastern Algonquian term "pawscohicora" which could refer more specifically to the milky liquid made from the nuts. Hickory milk was added to dishes like hominy, cornbread and samp. Today some Native folks are reviving the process of making hickory nut milk using both modern and traditional kitchen utensils.
It is in all these applications we can see how the shells of hickory nuts hindered nothing – not the process, not the product, and especially not the want for hickory nuts. They were sought out, amassed, and intelligently processed… creating calories, not losing them.
And Some More Noteworthy Nuts, Like Black Walnuts and Butternuts!...
Walnuts were abundant in the East, and their nuts were a little easier to extract whole kernels of meat from than hickories, however, they too had their drawbacks... They weren’t, for example, prime candidates for mass processing (like hickory nuts) – this due to the fact that their high tannin husks stuck to the shells. If to be enjoyed in their ripeness, the shell containing the nut had to be carefully removed from the noxious “ink sponge” of a husk (a great dye resource), so not to contaminate the nut meats… a hurdle nonexistent with their hickory cousins. Once the meats were removed, they could be consumed as is or treated as almost any other nut. Historically black walnuts and butternuts were added to stews, pounded into meals and made into breads and samps (post #9), even beaten with warm water to create nut milk (like hickory nuts). The butternut has often been favored by Native Peoples for having a slightly sweeter taste than the black walnut, yet both are a bit more bitter when compared to the foreign English walnut, or the native shagbark hickory nut. Possibly for these reasons archaeological assemblages throughout the Delaware River watershed generally show only half as much use of walnuts than that of the favored hickory.
...And the Pecans!
In the same walnut family was another native nut, the pecan. The pecan is a type of hickory native to the Mississippi River area and western Ohio River Valley (nope, not Georgia, though they are one of the largest cultivators of pecans today). It was the Native folks of what is now western Tennessee, Illinois, southern Indiana, etc., that had access to wild pecans. In fact the term pecan is likely derived from the Miami-Illinois word for nut, "pakaani."
...And the Chestnuts! (Chinquapins Too)
Though we might think of chestnuts as only a festive roasted treat, roasting them is only one of many ways chestnuts could be enjoyed,... and the Native Peoples of the East did well to exploit this starchy nut’s culinary capabilities. Chestnuts were eaten raw, cooked with game, added to puddings and baked into breads. Being rather full of carbohydrates, it also makes a wonderful flour... Indeed chestnuts can be thought of as a “grain nut,” used much like acorns (see post #21), though not for oil. In fact chestnuts are rather light in fats when compared to other nut staples of the Eastern Woodlands. One 16th c. observer noted the Peoples of the Virginia-Carolina area mashed and boiled chestnuts into a “pap” – the chestnut’s ability to step in for a grain ingredient likely led to it being used in many types of porridges and dense cakes. Though there exists enough historical accounts attesting to the Native use of chestnuts, and many forest compositions were thick with these trees, the archaeological evidence is often lacking where it shouldn’t (this possibly due to the nut’s thin shell or other characteristics)… We know the tradition existed in ancient times and the chestnut was a prized resource, particularly from southern New England through the Mid-Atlantic states where the American chestnut thrived. (Chinquapins, abundant in the Southeast, bear a smaller version of nut from its northern cousin, the American chestnut)
...And the Hazelnuts!
Eastern North America is home to native hazelnut varieties like the widespread American hazelnut, and beaked hazelnut, growing along the Appalachian range and through the upper Great Lakes. Native hazelnuts are rather small but easy to collect, growing in clusters surrounded by papery husks. Such were picked while fresh and enjoyed “in-the-milk” stage, or gathered when matured and stored for winter use by folks like the Potawatomi and Meskwaki. Though the hazelnuts we are usually exposed to in commercial foods and markets are not the same as wild native hazelnuts, these small nuts still have a faithful following.
...And Even Beechnuts!
Those familiar with these nuts know they are quite small, yet they pack a nutritional punch with a 50% fat content. These little nuts can be time-consuming and tedious to collect, especially if not a mast season. But luckily the humans weren’t the only ones gathering nuts... In early 1900’s Wisconsin the local Potawatomi noted it was easy to get ample amounts of the beechnuts just by locating the seed stashes of deer mice, which were more evident in the snow. The Menominee community (of the same state and time) also used beechnuts, storing them for winter use. Across Ininwewi-gichigami (Lake Michigan) on historic Ojibwe-Odawa lands (western Michigan), a food cache pit containing beechnuts showed scholars that these small seeds were not just purposely stored, but effectively stored.
-“Acorns and Bitter Roots: Starch Grain Research in the Prehistoric Eastern Woodlands” by Timothy C. Messner.
-"History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States" by John Heckewelder.
-“How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts” by Frances Densmore
-"Indian New England Before the Mayflower" by Howard S. Russell.
-“Kanuchi” Chreokee Nation Website: http://www.cherokee.org/AboutTheNation/Culture/CookBook/Kanuchi.aspx
-"Native People of Southern New England 1500-1650" by Kathleen J. Bragdon
-"Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America" by James Axtell.
-"Parker on the Iroquois" by Arthur C. Parker.
-"Societies in Eclipse: Archaeology of the Eastern Woodlands Indians, AD 1400-1700" edited by David S. Brose, C. Wesley Cowan, and Robert C. Mainfort Jr.
To cite this article:
Diemer-Eaton, Jessica. (2014, October). Food Nuts of the Eastern Woodlands. Retrieved from http://woodlandindianedu.com/foodnuts.html