Native food rises again at the Intervale
“When I was in college here, anthropologists still thought that Indians only roamed through here in hunting bands,” says University of Vermont ethnobotanist Kit Anderson. More than 30 years later, she is reminiscing surrounded by corn, beans and squash at Healthy City Commons — a sizable plot just off the Rena Calkins Trail at the Intervale Center. This is the home of the Abenaki Traditional Garden, a project combining the talents of growers, historians and conservationists in a living, edible embodiment of what Samuel de Champlain most likely found when he arrived on these shores.
“This is exactly where such a garden would be,” continues Anderson, pointing a few yards into the distance. “There’s a burial site just past that row of trees. A young Abenaki woman was found buried there, and in the soil were the remains of corn.”
When did that Mesoamerican crop make its way north? Reconstructing our region’s agricultural and culinary past is part of the job of people like Phil Brett, a member of the Burlington Area Community Gardens Board and the project’s planting research and garden planner. In his descriptions of native life, Brett paints history in vivid colors. He explains that a village along Lake Champlain — known to residents at the time as Ondakina — would easily have been home to 1000. And these weren’t the isolated “savage” villages many envision. Instead, Brett says, the lake served the earliest Burlingtonians as an aquatic Silk Road — or the original Internet.
It brought corn here, though no one knows when. Brett says that even with carbon dating, the date of maize’s introduction to Vermont is controversial. “Most people would be satisfied with somewhere between 500 and 1000 years ago. 800 B.C. is a distinct possibility.”
“Corn started in Mexico and Guatemala,” begins Anderson.
“It spread through trade networks from the Southwest to the Ohio and throughout the Northeast,” breaks in Brett. “They were traveling by rivers and lakes. There was a network of trade that went as far south as Pennsylvania to the Chippewa in the Great Lakes.”
Not that every Abenaki group jumped at the idea of starting a crop of corn. Back then, Brett points out, the lake offered a far more plentiful (and pollutant-free) protein source than it does now: “You could actually shovel or pitchfork salmon out of the lake at such volume that they didn’t need that investment.”
For today’s Burlington, rows of corn are as much a cultural “investment” as an economic one. The Abenaki Traditional Garden was created this year as a demonstration for the Lake Champlain quadricentennial festivities this summer. It’s part of the Intervale’s Healthy City project, which provides low-income families with fresh produce planted and harvested by at-risk teens. The fruits — or rather, veggies — of their labor on this plot will be shipped to the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi in Swanton. A small “sister garden” was planted there last Friday in front of the Abenaki Self-Help Association and Abenaki Tribal Museum, a collection of masks, canoes and other tribal mementos. (Unfortunately, the tribe shuns the spotlight and chose not to participate in this story.)
Though Brett’s wife Andrea is Abenaki, he and Anderson — who’s on board as a consultant — had plenty to learn. The Nation’s elders shared stories of their childhoods and food traditions passed through the generations. These, combined with research papers written by Anderson’s ethnobiology students, served as templates for the crew.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has also played a key role in the Abenaki garden project, spurred on by Brett’s work restoring indigenous heirloom seeds. Brett is particularly proud to discuss a strain of hard corn called Roy’s Calais flint, first cultivated by the Abenaki hundreds of years ago. In more recent times, the namesake breed was maintained by Roy Fair of North Calais, father of one of Brett’s childhood friends. The breed was nearly extinct when Tom Stearns of Wolcott’s High Mowing Seeds began reviving it.
Fortunately, there were fresh seeds for the Abenaki Traditional Garden team to use. Other varieties have not been as easy to obtain. “It was a trick to track down seeds,” discloses Brett, saying that some of the garden’s final stalks, such as Yellow Flint and Iroquois Rose, will be derivatives of maizes that would have grown along the lake. “Some didn’t do as well as others. Some of the seeds were very, very old and may need laboratory work before they can thrive.”
Rather than staying put on one plot of land, the Abenaki moved seasonally, following food sources. Brett says that even in his lifetime, Abenaki friends like the Fairs were as much “Appalachian hill people” as Vermonters. He explains, “My wife and much of her family and other Native American-mixed folks traveled to follow the seasons. They were involved in outdoor work like forestry and would come back up north when work was available.” Because of this seminomadic lifestyle, crops had to thrive without constant care.
Wanting to replicate those methods, Brett says, “I tried an experimental plot, and even in dry weather, the squash works as a living mulch.” Anderson adds that weeds also aid in keeping soil moist — and in feeding folks. “Lambsquarter would be good food,” she says, plucking a handful of mint-like stalks from around the corn. “Amaranth, pigweed — they were all good to eat.” Indeed, the lambsquarter — a relative of quinoa — is a treat, with the texture of a slightly furry spinach but the taste of sugar-snap peas.
A standard diet of corn, squash and beans may sound limited, but before Europeans brought more hardy veggies that could withstand a frost, there wasn’t much choice. “You’re getting far enough north,” says Brett, “that growing lengths of more than 90 to 120 days, you’re reaching your limit.”
Anderson is quick to point out that, though not as common as the aforementioned staples, “Jerusalem artichokes are definitely Native American. They don’t produce seed here, so you have to deliberately plant them, but once you do, they don’t go away.”
Native folks weren’t wanting for wild harvests, either. When famed explorer and botanist Pehr Kalm came to Vermont in 1750, he was excited to bring wild rice back to Sweden with him. Anderson also lists roots, nuts, seeds and berries as reliable food sources. Animals were easily hunted and fish easily caught. Maple syrup gave flavor to dishes such as a white cornmeal and blueberry breakfast, about which Anderson raves, having just tried it at the home of Native American friends.
In fact, not all local groups bothered to grow their own food. Just northeast of the Abenaki lived the Mi’gmaq. Anderson, who recently visited a Québecois Mi’gmaq family, says, “They were talking about fishing and hunting, but that was really it. The further north you go, the less planting and cultivation was happening.”
One plant that Anderson hopes to grow in the future is groundnuts. Though the pearl-like tubers are usually associated with African cuisine, one breed is indigenous to Lake Champlain. This veggie was one North American prize that the white man tried to plunder in vain: “People in Europe got excited about them, really wanted to use them, but they just didn’t thrive in Spain or France or anywhere else they tried to grow them,” Anderson says. This was also the case in Ireland, where, in desperation, farmers tried to plant groundnuts instead of potatoes during the famine.
Whether here or in Europe, Anderson points out, “You had to really know the ecosystem and how the seasons worked.” Since Vermont seasons are mostly cold, colder and coldest, the Abenaki found ways to make their crops last through the lean months. Using the 1917 text Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden — an in-depth tome filled with descriptions of the agriculture and food of the Missouri River-based Hidatsa, written by a 78-year-old woman named Maxi’diwiac — the Abenaki Traditional Garden team learned to visualize and replicate the drying stages and cold-cellar-like storage pits once built along Lake Champlain.
The book also introduced them to a novel method of preventing animals from eating the rations. “People knew that deer and raccoons wanted their food, so traditionally they would build platforms and put kids on them, and they would throw rocks and sing to scare away the animals,” Anderson says. (A good use of the Healthy City kids, perhaps?)
Maxi’diwiac’s recipes are probably not unlike those cooked for Champlain in his days along the lake. She takes great care in describing the preparation of everything from corn bread to squashes boiled with their blossoms in animal fat. Having dined with many Native American families across the country, Anderson feels qualified to say that most dishes were “soups and stews of some sort.” Written recipes were exceedingly rare, she says. Most preparation involved “cornmeal, venison and whatever you’ve got.”
One patch of garden has been cleared for the Quadricentennial demonstrations on July 12, which will include tours of the garden, clay-pot cooking demonstrations and story telling. At the other end of the field grows a thin band of plants off limits to photographers and not intended for consumption — the Abenaki Sacred Garden. Among them is sweet grass, which usually grows along salt marshes and is used for basketry and smudging, or cleansing of the body with purifying smoke before religious ceremonies. Northern white cedar and sage are also there, but most sacred of all is the tobacco crop.
Anderson conjectures that this herb was the first to be purposely planted and plucked by the Abenaki. “The sacred often precedes the food,” she muses, absorbed in the plants, then explains that tobacco smoke was thought to facilitate communication with the gods. Only Abenaki men were permitted to work on the crop in the uncommonly patrilineal society.
Though the Quadricentennial inspired the creation of the Abenaki Traditional Garden, the team plans to continue its work well beyond this summer. “This is an experimental garden,” says Brett, who started most of the plants from seed at home. He’s been using trial and error to discover which crops thrive together and which don’t — in essence, relearning the lore of generations of Abenaki. “Each group knew the combination,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “We are just starting to bring their secrets to life again.”
To learn more: Tour the Abenaki Traditional Garden as part of the Taste of Champlain Food Festival, Sunday, July 12, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m, at Healthy City Commons, Intervale Center. (Access is from the Rena Calkins Trail; parking available on Intervale Road across from Gardener’s Supply and at the trailhead before Intervale Compost Products.) Wild edibles tour by Nova Kim and Les Hook, 9:30-11:30 a.m. (preregistration required; call 863-0420); ongoing activities include tours, pizza making, cooking with stones in traditional clay pots with Charles Paquin, story telling and braid making by Rachel Whitebear, and more.