Preserving Food

William We-ah-lup Smoking Salmon, 1906, Tulalip Indian Reservation, courtesy University of Washington Libraries

William We-ah-lup Smoking Salmon, 1906, Tulalip Indian Reservation, courtesy University of Washington Libraries

Patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, though forced to eat a relatively poor diet of increasingly refined foods provided by the government, benefited from the fresh food and meat raised on the asylum grounds. However, there never seemed to be a sufficiency that allowed the kitchen staff to do much in the way of preserving this more nutritious food for winter use. In earlier times, however, Native Americans kept themselves healthy during the sparse winter foraging season by preserving food.

Harvest Dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo

Harvest Dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo

By October and early November, Native Americans who were growing cultivated crops would have gathered much of their harvest. The task to preserve food for the coming winter was a difficult one, and tribes across the continent met the challenge in a variety of ways. Drying food was one preservation method, and it had the advantage of making the harvest easier to store and transport; the loss of water concentrated nutrients and lightened the weight of the food itself. Some foods like beans could dry naturally on the vine, but other foods like corn, berries, and mushrooms were usually gathered first and then dried. The Pawnee and Wichita peoples often dried pumpkins in strips, then wove these strips into pumpkin mats for long-term storage. Native Americans fermented some foods, including meat, but did not seem to depend as much on this method for long-term preservation.

Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North, 19th century illustration

Sugar-Making Among the Indians in the North, 19th century illustration

Smoking fish and meat, which both dries and chemically protects food, was another traditional way to preserve food, particularly high-quality proteins. People hung fish or strips of meat on racks in a smoking structure; once thoroughly preserved, these strips of protein would be hung for storage. Tribes with access to high mountains could freeze food, though it did not usually last through an entire winter. Native Americans also buried food contained in clay storage urns lined with bark or grass to keep out rodents.

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