By Veronika Ederer
Special to the Daily
For whatever reason, the Southeast had never triggered my interest in the past. Of course, I heard about some of the native tribes; about the Trail of Tears, about the Cherokee origin and about the Green Corn ceremony during my studies of cultural anthropology in Munich, Germany, but that was the extent of my knowledge. However, the Southeast would be covered in my cookbook, so I had to study more about the region. Of course, once committed, I wanted to learn as much as possible. In the first part of the book, I’d selected a few recipes from my North American cookbooks; I knew for the chapter on the Southeast I had to dive into details.
My first chance came during a research tour for my book on friendship stories. I was following the life and deeds of Georg Wratten, an Anglo interpreter and scout during the Apache Wars who isn’t well known. After Wratten helped in 1886 to talk Apache leader Geronimo into surrendering, he followed the Apaches to Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma. He would remain their loyal friend.
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I had a friend who grew up in Florida and who was very familiar with the nature of the swamps, as well as Apache history. With this friend I visited Fort Pickens in the Pensacola area of Florida and Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, as well as Mount Vernon, Alabama and later on, I flew to Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
This was my first visit to Florida, so I wanted to see the places that were important in Wratten’s life. I visited the Ah-tah-tih-ki Museum of the Seminole Tribe and the Everglades, as well. Growing up in Germany, the nature in Florida was for me like visiting a foreign planet: There were palm trees all over the place — I’ve never seen a coconut palm before — there were bald-cypress trees towering over me and grey moss hanging from the tree branches.
I arrived in February — right before mosquito season when it was cooler — so some plants were not even fully developed. I didn’t only see my first alligator — I had promised my father that I would take a little one in my hands, which I did — I was also adventurous enough to taste it, fried with some dips. It reminded me of a mixture between chicken and fish. I bought a lot of Seminole souvenirs like a Sofkee spoon for a soup made from cracked corn; miniature racks for a stickball game and Seminole dolls. I was thinking ahead to use these during teaching and in my future cookbook.
My second tour to the Southeast was different. I had always dreamed of visiting Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site — I’ve been always interested in Native American pre-Columbian history and was deeply fascinated with Cahokia. I decided to fly to St. Louis and do just that.
For two days I explored the park, strolling around the pyramids and the impressive museum where — besides many other things — I learned about the prehistoric use and cultivation of plants like marsh elder, goosefoot and little barley. People in Cahokia grew corn, beans and squash, but also collected American lotus, blackberries, plums, pecans and hickory nuts. I brought home copies of the ceramics used, together with all the knowledge, which I would share with my curious students and later on use as decoration for the cookbook to go with the pictures of the food.
In 2019, I planned an 11-week trip to the U.S., being fortunately a teacher with extensive vacation time and having a very understanding boss. I started my trip in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and made my way through different parks and museums in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Utah and Arizona to New Mexico. Because of white people, many Southeast tribes were forced to move to Oklahoma where they still have residence, and so are their museums. Here, I visited the Cherokee Heritage Center, the Seminole Nation Museum and the Chickasaw Cultural Center with the mouth-watering specialties of the Aaimpa’ Café. In those museums, I could not only taste some dishes, I also got a lot of information, saw cooking utensils, the housing, fields, discovered some cookbooks and even more ethnographic objects for my private collection.
Working on my cookbook, I found out that once more a lot of traditional dishes — especially consisting of native plants — were impossible to cook in Germany or Switzerland where I live. In Florida, which covers only a small part of the Southeast and its culture, I learned that the Seminole ate the root of the coontie plant, which they ground to a pulp and then washed with water to remove toxins before using. They picked palmetto berries, cabbage palm berries, swamp cabbage, wild grapes, wild persimmons and much more.
I wouldn’t be able to use a lot of these native plants since often there was no equivalent plant in Europe. It was much easier with fish or deer since I could use European wild game or seafood as a substitute. I even tried to find a good source for alligator meat, but since there were no sources where the animals at least could live a kind of normal life before being slaughtered for their skin, I abandoned the idea immediately.
There were other native ingredients more easily obtainable in Europe, such as wild onions, corn, beans and pumpkins. Also, getting pecans, blackberries, hazelnuts or passion fruit was no problem. Some plants, like peanuts, had a roundabout journey, traveling from the Andes and then on slave ships to Africa and back to the Southeast to become a “traditional” food. Trade made coffee, flour, oranges, other tropical fruits and sugar cane a staple.
One cookbook from the Southeast I bought was clearly European/American influenced since every meat dish included deep-frying it. In Germany/Switzerland you usually don’t drown meat in oil, and I’m very sure that native people didn’t have such amounts of fat to fry all their food with. Once again, I came upon the question what traditional food was. I wanted every chapter of my book to include some recipes to show the changes in its history, but also to be a kind of challenge, to at least encourage people to search for special items.
Finally, we ended up with a salad made from palm hearts — which are available in a can — eggs with wild onions, the famous Sofkee, another soup made from peanuts, one with pecans and chicken, sweet potato biscuits, a spinach-cheese pie, a fish stuffed with grapes and oranges, a corn-stuffed rabbit, a variation of succotash, grape dumplings, pecan cookies and a passion fruit drink.
Today I’ll share a sweet recipe with you – the grape dumplings. Try it with ice cream – it is summer after all.
2 cups flour
5 oz water
1 Tbsp cornstarch
17 oz Grape Juice
Vanilla ice cream (optional)
Mix flour, egg, water and 1.5 ounces of grape juice into a firm dough ball. Roll out the dough on a clean working surface, about 1/4 inch thick. Traditionally, you cut the dough in diamond shapes, but you can cut it in any other small shape you like.
Mix the cornstarch with four tablespoons of grape juice. Put the rest of the juice in a big pot and bring to a boil. Add sugar if you like. Carefully slip the pieces of dough in the boiling juice and let cook for 2 minutes. Add the cornstarch mixture and stir carefully.
Serve hot with some of the grape sauce.
Serving suggestion: It is very tasty if you pour it on top of some vanilla ice cream.