Welcome to Mvskoke Country

POME Magazine, Winter 2019

hoktiLike many people in Mvskoke country (and many more in the American South), I grew up eating corn on the cob, white and yellow hominy, homemade cornbread, and the occasional boiled or fried hominy grits.  Vce, which the Europeans called “maize” or simply “Indian corn,” is the quintessential staple of Mvskoke cuisine.  It may also be Native North America’s greatest contribution to the world’s domesticated food supply.

Having spent most of my adult life as a university professor, I enjoyed the academic freedom to study the cultural and ecological traditions of my Mvskoke forebears.  In 2009 I began writing a monthly column for the Muscogee Nation News titled “Mvskoke Country,” which is archived on the internet at MvskokeCountry.online.  Each installment offered a topical perspective on enduring themes in human ecology; I tried to connect local concerns with global realities and to reconnect Mvskoke traditions with the natural world.  Many columns incorporated insights gained from a close study of the Mvskoke language, which bears evidence of ecological decline in the historical period.

One of my earlier pieces, written in response to a reader’s query about traditional Mvskoke recipes, posed the question “What Is Mvskoke Food?”  That’s a slippery word, “traditional,” pointing back in time toward the dim corners of collective memory, like a flickering flashlight aimed into a very deep cave.  How far do you have to go?  How long does it take to make a tradition?  These are tough questions in a modern world where things are always changing, and people are more interested in the latest gadgets for sale than the timeless truths of their ancestors.

Over the years I’ve tracked down more than two dozen publications containing instructions for processing and preparing traditional Mvskoke dishes—foods and drinks that were popular before the rise of industrial technology and that are named in the Mvskoke language.  The most informative of these printed sources is Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods, written by Beulah Simms and published by Ben Chaney in 1970.

Hoktē, you may know, is the Mvskoke word for “woman”; here it refers to Beulah’s mother, who gave her these ancient recipes.  “She is typical,” Beulah writes, of those Mvskoke matriarchs “whose greatest concerns were the patient and loving preparation of food for generations of families,” and who “will be remembered with much appreciation by all those who have feasted at church gatherings, stomp dances, family get-togethers, or just plain daily living.”

Beulah dedicated her book to the next generation of Mvskokvlke, hoping “to inspire a revival of interest in the old methods of preparing food,” particularly among “those hardy individuals who have the initiative, curiosity, and fortitude to try these recipes.”  Preserved here are the ingredients, utensils, and preparations used by Mvskoke cooks for countless generations, before the advent of “modern kitchen conveniences.”  Practicing “the old Creek Indian ways of cookery” involves handmade implements fashioned from wood and other natural materials; Hokti’s recipes are prefaced by a survey of several such utensils.

Not surprisingly, many of the twenty recipes collected here include vce.  As Beulah points out, the survival of Green Corn and other observances rooted in agriculture demonstrates the importance of both crop and ceremony in Mvskoke life.  Other ingredients listed in these recipes may be harder to find at your local grocer—wood ash lye, possum grapes, sassafras root bark, and squirrel, for example.  You’ll probably have better luck if you know your way around “Nature’s Super Market,” as Beulah terms it.

Some of these recipes call for flour, eggs, pork, or beef—foods that have become common, if not necessarily healthy, elements of the modern diet.  Wheat, chickens, pigs, and cattle are not native to Mvskoke country; they were domesticated in the Eastern Hemisphere and transplanted to the Americas as part of the European invasion.  So Hokti’s Recipe Book documents Mvskoke culinary traditions during a particular period of our history, after the onset of colonial trade but before we got hooked on mega-marts and drive-thrus.

For example, the recipe for tafvmpuce [see below] consists of wild onions, which are still gathered in the wild today by este Mvskoke; bacon grease, which is a substitute for wild game fat obtained through hunting; eggs (from chickens), which replace eggs produced by domesticated turkeys or gathered from wild bird nests; and water and salt, which are still available in the wild but more commonly purchased from public or private sources.  The wild onion dinners held throughout Mvskoke country every spring are serving up a tasty dish that embodies the entire history of Mvskoke subsistence practices—gathering, hunting, domestication, trade, and modern commerce.

In 2010 I caught up with Ben Chaney, who was then managing the Department of Transportation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation after an eclectic career in art, education, and business.  He told me about drawing the illustrations for Hokti’s Recipe Book and printing it in his Okmulgee garage as a young man, and he gave me permission to publish an electronic version of the book on the “Mvskoke Country” website.  In February 2018, at the venerable age of 76, Ben returned to work for the Nation as Secretary of Interior Affairs, overseeing thirteen departments serving MCN citizens and area residents.  Unfortunately, his tenure was cut short by his unexpected death six months later.  Beulah had died many years earlier, in 1987, and her mother “Hokti”—Peggie Berryhill King, an original allottee—died in 1996; both were buried in the Tallahassee Church Cemetery in Okmulgee alongside many of their Mvskoke relatives.

The public response to the online republication of Hokti’s Recipe Book has been truly remarkable.  Over the past decade, I have posted more than a hundred columns, field notes, found poems, vintage recipes, book reviews, and other writings related to Mvskoke cultural and ecological traditions.  Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods is the most popular content ever published on the website, having been accessed over ten times as often as the second most popular page—the column in which I discussed this very source in response to a reader’s query about traditional Mvskoke recipes.  Who would have guessed that Mvskoke people and their friends like to eat?!  MVTO, Peggie, Beulah, and Ben.

What is Mvskoke food?  There are no simple answers in a complex, modern world.  But it’s worth reflecting on this question because, as the saying goes, you are what you eat.  Mvskoke people have survived by eating Mvskoke foods—and our foods survive by being eaten, just as our words survive by being spoken.

Hompaks cē.  (You all eat now!)

cooking tools
This 1923 photograph depicts several of the Mvskoke cooking tools described in Hokti’s Recipe Book of Creek Indian Foods, like those Peggie Berryhill King used as a young woman:  three large keco (mortars) made from sections of tree trunk that have been hollowed out at one end; three kecvpe (pestles) carved from long, straight logs, shown here with their weighted tops on the ground; three woven containers—a large ‘senweskv (fanner) at top, a perforated svlahwv (riddle) at bottom, and a square svmpv (basket); and an upturned le-hayv (three-legged cast iron kettle).  (15022.4, Jennie Elrod Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society)

Hokti’s Recipe for Tafvmpuce

wild onions — 4 bunches
water — 1/2 cup
bacon grease — 2 tablespoons
salt — 1 teaspoon
eggs — 6 beaten

Wild onions can best be found in early springtime or even late winter, as soon as the winter snows have melted and the ground has thawed.  The onions have long, slender leaves and onion smell and are found on creek banks or in shaded, wooded areas.

(The flowers of the wild onion are rose, reddish-purple and white in color.  The leaves of the wild onion are two to four inches or more high.  “Crow’s Poison” looks very much like the wild onion but has flat leaves and does not have the onion smell.)

Dig up sufficient quantities; about four hands full.

Clean and wash thoroughly, making certain all the soil is washed out of the leaves.  Cut into one-inch lengths.  Place the onions in a skillet with the water and simmer until the onions are tender.  (If the onions are old, simmer in salt water.)

Pour off the water and add the bacon grease and cook until the onions are wilted.  Add salt and the eggs and stir until the eggs are completely cooked.

A Creek Indian has not fully prepared for the advent of summer until he has eaten his fill of wild onions in the spring, and it is even better if the meal has been shared with good friends.

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