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Marrow, Tallow & Greasy Goodness:
The practice of flavor-boosting is probably universal, and the Eastern Native Peoples certainly favored fats and oils for their ability to elevate almost any dish. Daily corn-based fare was often made rich and flavorful with the addition of any form of fat. Often exclusively thought to be a Southern American cuisine style, the cooking of greens, corn breads and succotash with animal fat was first demonstrated on this land by Indigenous Peoples... and continues to be a culinary preference by some Native cooks.
Bear fat was especially prized for taste, and was used to "butter" corn cakes and added to hominy, succotash, wild rice, cooked greens and corn mush. A favorite way to flavor venison was to skewer it, and dip it into bear oil and maple sugar before eating (an Indigenous “fondue”). While quite a few Native persons render bear fat today, only some do so for food purposes.
Foods were predominantly boiled and roasted, though sometimes meats, vegetables and breads were, at times, shallow-fried in animal grease. Animal bones were cracked and cooked for their bone grease,… making flavorful stocks. Marrow, that fatty tissue found in larger bone cavities, was cooked, scraped out and used to flavor foods or enjoyed on its own. And sometimes animal fats were enjoyed on their own. One Canadian First Nations individual was observed biting into a piece of solid bear fat, in the same manner one might enjoy an apple. It is likely that many others enjoyed solid fat as a treat, or as even a dietary supplement of sorts, such as the way some infants were fed little amounts of pure oil.
Fats were rendered for storage – a process where fatty tissues were heated and separated from impurities, resulting in clarified oils and stabilized tallows. An Anishinaabe/Ojibwe tradition calls for stored moose and deer tallow to be mixed with dried blueberries. And while fat-infused blueberries were tasty, the fruit may have served to keep the grease from souring in storage. Some were noted to store their bear fat in vessels with sassafras and slippery elm bark "to keep it sweet." Tallow was also sometimes mixed into hot maple sugar just before it was cooled and granulated, and not for the benefit of the fat but for the benefit of the sugar… it was said to “soften” the texture of the sugar (something I can personally attest to).
Above: Rendered deer fat in a Mississippian-style duck bowl... Part of WIEP Native Foodways display.
Pemmican, though popularly thought of as just dried meat (given the commercial brand), is not just lean jerky… and is really not “lean” given the 1 to 1 meat to fat ratio it could have. Pemmican is made with dried meat, pounded into powder, traditionally mixed with dried berries, sometimes grains or sugar (possibly maple sugar)… recipes likely varied based on tradition, location, and availability of ingredients. The ground mixture of meat and berries (or grain or sugar) is then added to melted fat (any animal fat that renders into a stable tallow product, like moose or deer). Pemmican cakes were formed, cooled, and stored for later use. They could be consumed as is, or added to heated water and other ingredients to create a hot soup or porridge. Pemmican was considered a high energy food not only by Native Peoples but also by newcomers… French voyagers, Anglo-woodsmen and traders, and others, were quick to adopt pemmican into their diets, being a particularly good food to travel with. Pemmican has continued to be made by some, and has made a notable resurgence in many Native kitchens.
Famously beaver tail was another fatty food (animal part) noted to be cooked and consumed. The flat tail does contain much gristle, nonetheless the fat was happily consumed – the fat inside can be easily cooked to a custardy consistency (like the one pictured here).
Birds like ducks and geese had were rich in oil, and well-loved fare. Passenger pigeons, once numerous but now extinct, were noted to render a good tasting fat which were likely taken great advantage of by Indigenous folks.
Oil procured from fish was utilized by some like the Wendat/Huron, and not just for culinary applications. Like other oils, it was also used for cosmetic purposes in conditioning the skin and hair, as was noted among Cherokee women who were said to have wrapped their long locks in eel skins (though referred to as eel, actually freshwater lamprey) - impregnating the hair with fine oil. And notably while the oil was deemed ok for cosmetic and medicinal use, the fish itself was considered not fit to eat in Cherokee society (cultural taboos). But the Lenape/Delaware did catch and eat eels (Atlantic variety of eel) during the annual eel run on the Delaware River. These eels were quite fatty... one 18th century observer noted that frying the eel was like frying bacon. It is not known for sure whether the Lenape processed fish oil for later use, but it was certainly possible. Large earthenware pots (fragments) recovered at presumably what were fishing camps may have been used to render oil or create oily stock. Indeed fish broth, which contained fish oil, was often added to corn-based dishes in many Eastern horticultural communities.
And not all oils were obtained from animals… Nuts were especially desired for their oily meats. Acorns (especially red oak acorns), butternuts, walnuts, and hickory nuts were cracked open and crushed (sometimes after being roasted in the shells) and then boiled in water to extract the oil. It was said that the nut oil would rise up and the cooks skimmed it off and saved it for many cooking and cosmetic applications. The Haudenosaunee/Iroquois considered butternut and hickory nut oil to be a delicacy eaten with breads and mixed into puddings (see Food Nuts). Nut oils were among the oils fed to nursing infants (see Baby Formula). Sunflower oil was made in the same way as nut oils, and was said to be used in great quantities in Haudenosaunee cuisine.
Further Reading: -“Acorns and Bitter Roots: Starch Grain Research in the Prehistoric Eastern Woodlands” by Timothy C. Messner. -“Eastern Cherokee Fishing” by Heidi M. Altman-"History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States" by John Heckewelder -"Indian New England Before The Mayflower" by Howard S. Russell -"Parker on the Iroquois" by Arthur C. Parker -"The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage" by Herbert C. Kraft -“The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction” by A.W. Schorger -“Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians” by Frances Densmore
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