'What's For Supper?' in Native American Communities

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On the afternoon of Monday, March 4 in Cole Cinema, the Department of Anthropology hosted its spring distinguished scholar. Professor Helen Rountree, largely considered the leading expert on Virginia and East Coast Indian tribes, gave her talk titled “What’s For Supper? Maryland Indian Food and Nutrition.” In an introduction by Associate Professor of Anthropology Dr. Julie King, Rountree was described as “incredibly prolific…[her work] benefits all of us interested in indigenous history.” When she was asked by Disney to consult on the popular film Pocahontas, she denied them, saying that she was an 11 year old laborer, not a “Buckskin Barbie.”

“Professor Rountree’s research is grounded in evidence,” said King, “and legendary in her effort to dispel stereotypes of native people.”

As Rountree took the podium, she said that the premise of the lecture was to describe a typical Native American meal in March, the lean times of the harvest. A feast would have many unexpected similarities to any dinner today, with highly developed social rules and strong etiquette expected from the guests. The attendees would wash their hands and say grace, though historians don’t know the contents of these prayers. Food was eaten out of wooden bowls and small ceramic dishes, and would be considered bland by Western standards. As Rountree said repeatedly, “If ya haven’t got it, you can’t serve it,” and there weren’t a lot of spices in the New World before contact.

The meal would be a multi-course event, with “aggressive hospitality” from the chief to show wealth and power. Strong tasting foods, like onions, were not served because they were considered medicine. There weren’t domesticated animals, like chicken or cows, so the meat in the meal would most likely be freshly caught venison, small game, wild turkey, and roasted oysters. Between courses, if there were the resources for it, giant mounds of cornbread would be provided to the honored guest. Courses arrived as men were able to hunt and cook the animals, and the women could forage additional herbs and plants.

Native American cooking is simple and quick, with animals roasted whole to get vitamins from organ meats. Food had to support the very physical lives of the Indians, who were huge eaters to keep their energy up. “Writing is very very fattening,” Rountree joked about the lean Native Americans. “I’m living truth.” They were more concerned with texture than taste, and feeling full overcame their desire for complex flavors. Their food was a mix of whatever they could find by season. Rountree said, “They would have eaten anything that walked, crawled, swam, or flew, but not at a banquet.” Feasts were a complex social event to prove a chief’s success.

The packed audience had lots of questions for Rountree about the food making process, food sources, and what a poor Indian family would eat on a typical day. Professor Rountree is the author of nine books and is professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University.

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