Mashantucket Pequot Museum Library and Archives Blog

Friday, February 5, 2010

Question & Answer: Berry Preservation

Question: I have read that berries were a important part of the Native American diet. How were berries preserved by Native people, who had no means of canning or refrigeration?

Answer: There are materials here in the library that suggest that a common method of preserving the berries was to dry them and then ground them into a flour type of consistency. The dried and ground berries were then used in recipes.

"Although we now have many ways of storing foods for use out of season, the Indians usually had to rely on just one method - drying. This is what they did when they found more chokecherries than they cared to eat fresh.

The Jicarilla Apaches ground the berries and made the meal into round cakes approximately 6 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. These hard, blackish patties could be stored and reconstituted when they were needed by soaking in water. The seeds contain a fair percentage of cyanide, but this poison is volatile and drive off by cooking. The soaked cherry cakes were boiled and the juice strained and sometimes sweetened for use as a beverage, or the juice was combined with other ingredients."
Source--Niethammer, Carolyn. American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999

"Berries, both fresh and dried, were important in the diet of Northwestern tribes. According to Skokomish chef Bruce Miller, the wild cranberry, about a quarter of the size of those sold commercially, is only one of the many varieties of berries available in the Northwest.

Traditionally, fresh berries were cooked by placing alternating layers of berries and heated stones in a special cedar cooking box or a tightly woven basket. After the stones were removed, the cooked berries - depending on the variety and the desired use - were either left to sit and thicken or were thickened more quickly by an addition of dried powdered berries or powdered skunk cabbage leaves. Thickened berries were formed into cakes and placed on wooden drying racks lined with skunk cabbage leaves. After drying over a hot alder-wood fire, the finished cakes were stacked and tied with soft shredded cedar bark and stored in a warm, dry place for future use."
Source--Cox, Beverly and Martin Jacobs. Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Inc., 1991.

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