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.

Taklik-Tokse / Taklik-Kvmokse

Dictionary le-hayvtaklik-tokse / taklik-kvmokse
“bread-sour”
sour cornbread

Charles Gibson, 1918

It takes three days to prepare this bread according to the old way.

A peck or even more of clean, shelled flint corn is prepared for making a quantity of this bread to have on hand for several meals. The shelled corn is placed in a large vessel, covered with luke warm water and soaked over night.

The soaked corn, a portion at a time, is pounded lightly in the wooden mortar so as not to crush the grain yet loosen the hulls. Then the grain is put into a fanner and the hulls cleaned out. The clean corn is soaked another night as before.

The next step in the preparation is to pound the soaked corn in a mortar to fine meal, in which there is always a small portion of fine grits. Sift out the meal, and boil the grits down in water to a gruel thoroughly done. Mix the meal with the gruel, and place the mixture in an earthen jar holding anywhere from two to ten gallons. The jar should be placed near a fire where it can be kept warm.

The third morning the dough will be fermented a little, and ready to put into a Dutch oven to be baked very slowly, an hour or longer until done. This bread, by adding a little salt and soda to the dough before baking, will be whiter than any flour bread when cooked done, having a delicious taste actually sweet without sugar.

Lilah D. Lindsey, 1933

Take one gallon of sofkey grits, soak overnight.

Next morning drip dry in a riddle or sugar sack, pound or grind into meal, mix as for corn bread with salt, soda, baking powder, and one cup of flour, pour in a jar, set in a warm place to ferment for twelve hours.

Then pour into hot greased iron kettle and bake same as corn bread.

Beulah Simms, 1970

Soak about one pound vce-cvlvtwe (flint corn) or vce-hvtke (white corn) in water until soft. It may require overnight soaking.

Hokti's taklik-toksePound in a keco with a kecvpe. Separate the coarser grains of corn from the fine powder. (The coarser grains may be dried and stored for later use.) Cook a thin gruel of two cups rice and while the mixture is still hot, mix with the powdered corn. Put the mixture into an earthenware crock which is large enough to allow for expansion and let set overnight in a warm room.

When you are ready to bake the bread, add one tablespoon baking powder and two tablespoons sugar and mix thoroughly. The sugar which is added gives the bread added flavor. Bake in oven as you would corn bread. 

Taklike-tokse is served with meat dishes.

American Indian Recipes, 1970

Soak two gallons of cracked corn in three or four gallons of hot water over night.

Drain water from corn and beat into fine meal, the last of which will form into a coarse meal. Save as much as two quarts coarse meal and cook with the water which it was soaked in. Combine one-half cup baking soda and a little water, enough to make a thin paste, then stir into the coarse meal. When the course meal is cooked thick enough to work with, add the fine meal and stir until its a little thicker than cornbread. Put into a stone jar for it to turn sour.

Then next day add a little flour and bake as cornbread.

Native American Recipes, 1996

Combine two cups cornmeal, two cups flour, one pinch baking soda, and one pinch baking powder. Add two cups water. Let mixture stand in a warm place until it becomes bubbly, usually overnight.

Pour into a greased cast iron skillet and cook on top of the stove under low to medium heat. Serve hot.

Some batter may be saved as a starter for the next batch of bread.

Bertha Tilkens, 2004

Cornmeal, made by pounding dried corn into powder, is used to make sour cornbread. Cornmeal is mixed with water and left to sit for several days until the mixture becomes sour. This mixture is then used to make cornbread, which tastes tangy and rather sour. This bread is delicious when served with soup or meat.

“Mvskoke Traditional Foods,” 2006

Combine two cups plain white corn meal, one-and-three-quarters cups flour, one teaspoon salt, one-quarter cup sugar, one cup cooked rice, and two cups warm water. Stir together until it looks fluffy and has some bubbles in it. Then let it set in a window or  somewhere for two days.

Add one tablespoon baking powder and one teaspoon baking soda, and a little water if it is too thick. Preheat oven to three-hundred-seventy-five degrees. Bake three cups of mixture in a greased skillet.

HardRidge 1996

Sources

Sakkonepke

factorsakkonepke
“in-a-liquid-cooked-thing”
meat and corn stew

James H. Hill, ca. 1936-40

You pour water in a small pot, put the osafke corn in, add meat, cook it, and it’s called sakkonepke.

Acee Blue Eagle, 1956

Prepare one squirrel, place in pot, cover with water and cook until tender. Add four cups sofkey grits, cook together until consistency is like hominy.

Rice is sometimes used in place of sofkey grits.

Indian Recipes, 1975

Cook sofkey grits until three-fourths done. Add short ribs of beef that have been baked or browned. Let simmer until meat and sofkey grits are tender. Salt and pepper to taste.

Lois Neal, 1992

Cook cracked corn about two hours. Clean raw squirrel and cut into serving pieces. Add to hominy and cook until done. Cook about four hours, stirring often. Add salt when done.

Bertha Tilkens, 2009

Brown pig feet before placing them in a crock pot. Add two cups of hominy corn and fill  the crock pot about three-quarters full with water to cover the pig feet and corn and cook until the corn is soft. To add flavor, use bacon drippings and salt to taste.

stew

Sources

Vce-Sokv

black aztecvce-sokv
“corn-whole-grain”
hominy

James H. Hill, ca. 1936-40

Shell black or white corn, put water in a pot to boil, set it over the fire, put in a small amount of strong ashes without any charcoal, and when it boils, put in the shelled corn, and after it boils, take out the corn, and wash it off until all the corn skin is removed.

When the same corn was boiled and cooked without grinding, grease was added, and it was called sokv and eaten.

Beulah Simms, 1970

Hokti's vce-sokvFrom a wood fire, pull out one gallon of hot ashes and some small glowing embers. Put one quart white corn and the ashes into a large iron kettle. Arrange the kettle so that it is tilted to one side. It is easier to stir this way. Stir the corn and ashes over a low fire until the corn turns light tan in color. Separate the corn in a colander or a can with holes punched in the bottom. Pour water through the corn until the corn turns white and all trace of the ashes has been removed. Dry the corn and store for later use.

Boil the desired amount of corn in water for approximately one hour until thoroughly cooked. Season with lard or pieces of pork for flavor (hogshead can be used for this).

American Indian Recipes, 1970

Take a half bushel bucket of squaw corn and half bushel bucket of strong ashes, about three buckets full of water heated in wash pot and bring to a boil. Add the sifted ashes and boil briskly, adding the corn and stirring it until it’s skinned, then wash until it’s clean.

This is a large amount and can be used in different ways. Soak this overnight and cook very similar to beans. Also can be cooked together with hogshead. Another way it has been used is to cook hominy with salt pork and wild greens that Indians eat. These are the greens that are ready to eat right after the wild onions are gone.

Native American Recipes, 1996

Add enough water to cover one quart wood ashes and bring to boil. Add one gallon shelled corn and bring back to boil. Boil for one-half hour stirring often. Pour out ashes and water. Rinse corn thoroughly four to five times in different water each time.

Pour corn into clean pot, cover with water or broth from soup bone and cook until corn is done. Serve warm.

Indian Territory: A Cookbook of the Early Years, 1998

Boil two quarts dried shelled corn, two gallons water, and two ounces lye in iron cooking pot for thirty minutes. Set off and let sit for thirty minutes to cool.

Rinse in cold water and remove skin and eyes. Put back in clean pot, add clean water and bring to boil, cook for five minutes. Empty. Repeat this two more times to remove all the lye.

After last bath, cook again for thirty minutes.

Creek Muscogee Recipes, Cooking Tips and Lore, 1999

A traditional method for preparing hominy is to take clean wood ashes (hardwoods such as oak or hickory are best) sifted and put into an iron kettle (aluminum is never used for making hominy). Cover wood ashes and dried corn, removed from the cob, with water and boil until the skin slips off the corn. Wash the skins and ashes away with plenty of fresh water.

The kernels are then boiled in fresh water until tender.

hominy

Sources