Berries… Seasonal Eat, Year-Round Treat:
Ripening berries were (and still are) an anticipated seasonal food. The first berries were often commemorated by annual holidays or ceremonies. So iconic and symbolic are berries that Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) girls undergoing their transition into womenhood can observe the berry fast, later concluding with the consuming of berries... notably including strawberries. Though far from supplying the most of any berry resource, it was often the beloved strawberry that commanded the most attention of any wild fruit among Eastern Native communities. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) observe the Strawberry Ceremony - an annual thanksgiving observance. And the strawberry juice consumed was not just a refreshing beverage but a ceremonial and celebratory drink. In Cherokee history it was the strawberry – not the huckleberry, not the blackberry, not any other fruit - that caught the attention of First Woman, stopping the displeased wife in her tracks, softening her heart and reuniting her with her husband, First Man. The strawberry is still today fasted from, feasted on, and celebrated symbolically on regalia.
More than strawberries: blackberries, raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, huckleberries, mulberries, shadbush/service/June berries, even sumac and elderberries were gathered in quantity. While many of these berries were truly wild, several Native farmers likely encouraged berry patches, if not outright tended to and propagated them. Historically many Indigenous communities from of the Mid-Atlantic to upstate New York to the Ohio Valley took to propagating foreign peach and apple tree species so quickly, so seamlessly - this likely because they managed native fruit trees and berry bushes far before first European contact. Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) - more myth than man - is given far too much credit for spreading fruit trees throughout Ohio, Indiana and beyond. By the time the legend himself even stepped foot in the Midwest, American scouts and officials had already observed vast orchards of mature peach and apple trees at abandoned Native villages in what is now the state of Ohio. These were not the orchards of Johnny Appleseed but the work of Native farmers.
While berries are only seasonally available, preserving berries guaranteed they were available year-round. Most varieties ripen in spring or summer, but what set cranberries apart from the others was that they provided a food source that could be collected from autumn into the frozen season. Though they were “fresh” even into the winter, the berries were still often preserved for later use. Unlike most berries, cranberries are a prime candidate for stringing up to dry. Some in the western Great Lakes region suspended their cranberries from the rafters to dry (it’s worth noting here that cranberries greatly benefit from being pierced or popped, accelerating the drying process of this firm berry). Another berry, the blackberry, was also at times suspended to dry… the Haudenosaunee cut the berry-filled branches and suspended the bunches to dry the berries “on the vine.”
However the usual method of drying blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and others was (and still is) by drying them on flat surfaces. Fresh berries were laid on reed mats, birch bark, or in wide baskets and set out into direct sunlight where they could quickly dehydrate. While they could be laid out on the ground and often they were, the inherent danger of crawling bugs, village dogs, and sweet-toothed toddlers could make the process more difficult than it had to be. The answer to this was their grill-style drying racks and raised platforms that provided a secure place for drying foods. Bonus was the village fires that generated smoke around the drying areas helping to discouraged thieving birds and flying bugs.
And sometimes berries were purposely smoked, like meat. The grill racks that dried meats and vegetables could be converted to handle small berries quite easily. The Anishinaabe, for example, spread field grass over the smoking frame to a thickness of about three inches… this created a foundation to cradle the small berries, while allowing the low heat and smoke from a small fire below to penetrate through the grass and reach the berries above. Once the whole berries were fully dried, they could be kept whole or easily broken down into a meal. Anishinaabe folks often stored dried blueberries and wild rice together in cedar bark woven pouches, which were later cooked together when desired for a meal. The Haudenosaunee rehydrated dried berries in cool water before slowly heating the berries up for use in recipes like sauce, corn bread batter, or hulled corn.
Berries could be broken down before they were dehydrated. The Haudenosaunee did this especially with strawberries and raspberries, mashing the berries in mortars and laying the resulting berry-mass on basswood leaves to dry while drinking the leftover juice as a beverage. Anishinaabe cooks mashed the fresh berries (seeds and all) and barely cooked (with little heat) the jelly in pots over the fire to concentrate it. The resulting semi-solid mass was formed into patties and then laid out in the sun to finish the drying process. The dried berry cakes were then stored away for later use, and when desired, the patties were broken down and added to breads, puddings, wild rice, and beverages for flavoring.
Though berries were generally preserved free of added sugars (historically speaking), it is wise to note the Native Peoples of the Northern Woodlands did process tree sap for sugars. In the 18th century, John Heckewelder observed that Delaware cooks: "make an excellent preserve from the cranberry and crab-apple, to which, after it has been well stewed, they add a proper quantity of sugar or molasses” (these terms have also been applied to maple sugar and syrup). More evidence generally lacks for preserves such as the one noted here, and there may be good reason for that. And it’s not a lack of knowing how to... The Indigenous Peoples here had the technology, the ingredients and the culinary prowess. It was more likely just a culinary preference. More often maple syrup/sugar was stored alone, without the addition of other ingredients. Less often we see the use of sugar in a preservative-like application (one example comes from an Anishinaabe tradition of packing some dried fish in sugar)… Unadulterated sugar allowed cooks to use sugar the way they saw fit at the time of cooking or consuming (cultural tastes). Just like meats were smoked unsalted in the north (before major European influences), so too were berries usually preserved without added sugar. Sugar (and salt) is not necessary to the preservation processing of dehydrating these food.
-“A Woodland Feast” by Carolyn Raine
-"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.
-"Native People of Southern New England 1500-1650" by Kathleen J. Bragdon
-"Parker on the Iroquois" by Arthur C. Parker.
-Thrower, Robert. Poarch Creek THPO (personal correspondence)
-“Uses of Plants by the Chippewa Indians” by Frances Densmore
To cite this article:
Diemer-Eaton, Jessica. (Updated 2020, December). Berries... Seasonal Eat, Year-Round Treat. Retrieved from http://woodlandindianedu.com/preservingberries.html