Foods of the Indigenous New England Tribes

After seeing the work of Roxanne Swentzell, I have been inspired to eat like my ancestors. With all the heritages I come from, that is a huge mix of different foods. I’m starting with my Native ancestry, the Narragansett tribe, because I grew up in Rhode Island, so those foods will likely be familiar gastronomically and physically.

Plants

Grains

Corn – Corn was brought to the Eastern Woodlands tribes about 1000 years (?) before first contact with Europeans as part of the Three Sisters. The kernels were nixtamalized with wood ash to make the more nutritionally complete and easier to digest hominy, which was then either eaten in soups or ground to make what we would know today as masa harina.

The Narragansett variety–Narragansett or Rhode Island white cap flint corn–is still grown today on small farms. However, most of it is bought by local traditional stone mills, who grind the corn for jonnycakes without first nixtamalizing it. So for now I’m using Masienda’s white corn flour as a substitute, which seems to be working out. The grind might be a little too fine for traditional dishes (New England tribes didn’t make tortillas), but it’s tasty and my body seems to approve.

Those I haven’t researched yet:

  • Wild rice
  • Goosefoot
  • Little barley
  • Maygrass
  • Beechnut

Nuts & Seeds

Black walnuts – Apparently, the walnuts we eat and are cultivated in the US today are English walnuts. Black walnuts taste very different. I found some in WalMart, of all places.

Sunflower seeds – Sunflowers have been bred for millennia here in the US. I doubt what we eat today has changed all that much over the years; I haven’t found anything that says otherwise.

Chestnut – About 4 billion American chestnut trees died out due to blight 100 years ago. There is an effort to revive the species, so American chestnuts might exist again eventually. Places to buy fresh listed in the first link.

Those I haven’t researched yet:

  • Acorn
  • Butternut
  • Hazelnut
  • Hickorynut

Fruit

Cherry – Wild cherries (also called ‘black cherries’, Prunus serotina) are native to New England. These cherry trees are not planted for their fruit but for their wood. It is more closely related to the chokecherry. The black cherries in the grocery store (I think) are Chelan cherries (Prunus avium), a cultivated sweet cherry created in Washington and are not at all the same as native cherry trees. The best it might be possible to do here is acknowledge that tart cherries were brought over to America in the very early 1700s.

Strawberry – Modern US strawberries are a cross between wild native strawberries and a European species. Wild strawberries aren’t really grown commercially, so unless you want to grow your own, you have to look hyper local for them. I found Northwest Wild Foods.

Those I haven’t researched yet:

  • Cranberry
  • Black huckleberry
  • Red mulberry
  • Wild plum
  • Dewberry
  • Raspberry
  • Blueberry
  • Wild grapes

Vegetables

Those I haven’t researched yet:

  • Canada onion
  • Ground bean
  • Groundnut
  • Silverweed
  • Canada lily
  • Turk’s cap lily
  • Sunchokes
  • Cattail
  • Duck potato
  • Indian cucumber
  • Winter squash – several varieties, including acorn and pumpkin
  • Summer squash – several varieties, including zucchini
  • Ramps
  • Lovage
  • Watercress

Really helpful resource

Note: Swentzell’s research hinges around the concept of it taking an organism 20 generations to fully adapt to its environment. So to eat in a way that is most optimal for your body, go back to somewhen where your ancestors were in the same place for about 400 years. This is an important point, because Plymouth was settled by colonists 400 years ago now. So for many New England tribes, the combination of their traditional food and settler food is a full adaptation at this point. Traditional New England cooking from the early 1700s with pork and wheat and dairy and pumpkins and corn might be just as healthful for tribal members as it is for those whose families go back to the early settlements (as long as their ancestors stayed in the area).