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Sofkee and Samp: Staple Dishes of the Eastern Woodlands (Corn Puddings, Porridges, Soups and Mush)
Sofkee and the Soft Corn Dishes of the Southern Nations:
Whether made of whole or cracked corn/hominy kernels, or of fine or coarse corn/hominy-meal, or of corn-in-the-milk (scraped green corn, sometimes soured), these corn dishes had come to characterize Southeastern Indigenous cuisine. Some of these dishes include (by name): Muskogee/Creek "Sofkee," Chickasaw "Pashofa," Choctaw "Tash-lubona" and "Ta-fula" (or "Tom Fuller"), and Cherokee "Kanahena." Sofkee, and all the Southern Native dishes just mentioned, were not only prepared for everyday meals in the past but are still prepared by some Native cooks today, usually for celebrations/ceremonies.
Sofkee varies greatly in it’s taste and texture, largely because of its variation in ingredients. Sofkee was often made of fresh/green corn, which is mashed (with a wooden mortar and pestle) and seasoned with a minimal amount of ashes (such as oak ashes). Dry cornmeal was also used to prepare sofkee… presumably, both dry cornmeal and dried “corn in the milk” were used more year-round for the preparation of sofkee as a staple dish (as green corn is only seasonally available).
Or, as others insist, the corn used in their sofkee (and related corn dishes) was/is alkali-treated corn, aka hominy. The hominy used could be fresh, made from dry kernels, or dry ground meal (grits). The hominy was cooked down to a creamy texture, often with meat or fish added… and a favorite meat to be mixed with sofkee after European contact was (and still is) pork.
Corn, Culture and Cuisine Come Together:
Adding pork to corn dishes may be the perfect example of frontier cuisine… French trappers and traders were often thought of as “pork-eaters” referring to the amount of pig meat consumed, especially by the working class. And Native corn-based dishes became the perfect host to European introduced pork. This Native-European culinary blend reflected the contact between, even the melding* of New and Old World societies that occupied the same space. Corn and pork dishes soon became commonplace fare in households of both Natives and newcomers (European-/African-Americans) neighboring each other.
From here on out, corn dishes weren’t only important to Indigenous Peoples,... even French voyagers depended on daily rations of hominy while in the bush. And with time, pork wasn’t just for Westerners... When made today, the traditional dish of Chickasaw pashofa usually includes pork - a tradition started generations ago with the introduction of European hogs (and subsequently wild boars).
Likewise another Old World ingredient made its way into Native cuisine - Old World rice. Rice particularly found its place in the all important sofkee dish, actually replacing corn altogether… one such Seminole sofkee recipe calls for white rice, cornstarch, and baking soda.
The texture of sofkee, whether made of fresh/green corn, dry cornmeal, dry or wet alkali-treated corn (hominy/grits), or even rice, could vary from a thick porridge to a watery soup (some even refer to sofkee as “corn drink”). There is no wrong consistency,.. maybe only by specific traditions, which, keep in mind, makes the next tradition no less viable. There is no definitive sofkee recipe - there are however many sofkee and other soft-corn dish traditions separated by time, space, culture, and even family preferences.
* "Melding" includes all blending experiences, whether it be peaceful or hostile relationships, including beneficial business friendships, voluntary marriages, willful adoptions, or human trafficking (kinship captivity, chattel slavery, compulsory marriages/sexual unions, involuntary domestic servitude, etc.)
From Sofkee in the South to Samp in the North: In the northern Woodlands corn mushes were known by many names, most popularly samp, sapan, and sagamité. All three of these terms were employed largely by colonists to define an array of Native corn porridge-like dishes. ------------------- Samp (nasàump) – Niantic origin: “(corn)meal pottage” -------------------- Sapan (sapàn) – Unami-Lenape/Delaware origin: “corn mush” ------------------ Sagamité (kisâkamitêw/ᑭᓵᑲᒥᑌ) – Cree origin: “the liquid is hot” (soup) ------------------ We'll use the term samp here to include anything from parched corn puddings to hominy porridges to thin cornmeal soups. Samp can be thought of (historically) as the daily gruel of agricultural Northeastern Native Peoples. And please understand, the term gruel is not meant to devalue Indigenous cuisine - “gruel” properly defines a cereal grain boiled in milk or water, such as corn cooked in water or a milky broth made from nuts. It is not inherently a negative term as popularly assumed... it’s just a grain-based thin porridge common in a culture’s (or class’s) daily fare. Gruel has been thought of as a wholesome and healing dish. And corn samp was indeed an everyday wholesome dish.
While these corn dishes can be equated to European gruel in definition, it did take on its own regional term: “mush.” Mush properly refers to puddings and porridges made of the grain maize, and is often used to describe a variety of corn dishes prepared by Native Peoples. One particular corn mush dish, polenta, carries with it a sense of high European cuisine, but its history has more humble beginnings...
Commonly thought of as an original Italian dish, polenta is truly a European version of Native samp or mush. Polenta does have antiquity in Europe, only this thick porridge was originally made of Old World grains like spelt and millet. Polenta made with cornmeal is more in the tradition of Native corn mushes, only European dairy was introduced to create the dish we know as polenta today. Cornmeal polenta soon became the choice gruel for European and American lower classes, whose reliance on corn began to imitate that of Native communities, only many non-natives suffered a side-effect of large corn diets the Indigenous Peoples successfully avoided… pellagra.
Haudenosaunee/Iroquois samp was (and still is) made from ash-treated corn boiled with water until it made a porridge or soup, and often berries and meat were mixed in. Similar corn dishes traditional among the Haudenosaunee include puddings, pottages, and a corn soup (drink), all of which have consistencies that have been noted among different sofkee/soft corn dishes from the Southeastern Nations. And not unlike sofkee descriptions, samp from the north also had variations in its main ingredient, that of maize. The corn used could be fresh/green and mashed, or dried and ground,… it could be ash-treated (hominy) or untreated, or even parched (roasted). The Lenape/Delaware were noted in the 18th c. for favoring their blue corn for pottage... the corn first being parched and ground into a meal before boiling with water until tender. Many added other ingredients to their samp and mush, such as nut meal or meat. And although salt seasoned southern sofkee (at times), it was maple sugar that often sweetened northern-style samp.
Not only have some kept the tradition of making samp to date, but this corn mush is making a culinary splash among some Northeastern Native communities, getting top treatment by some Indigenous chefs as they reimagine the humble pottage into fine dinning cuisine.
Corn puddings, mushes, porridges and thin broths in all it’s forms, truly defines the foodways of the Eastern Woodland Peoples… Native dependence on and reverence for corn can be seen in their culinary treatment of this noble grain.
To cite this article:
Diemer-Eaton, Jessica. (2016). Sofkee and Samp: Staple Dishes of the Eastern Woodlands (Corn Puddings, Porridges, Soups and Mush). Retrieved from http://woodlandindianedu.com/sofkeeandsamp.html
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