For earth-wise indigenous peoples, intimate and profound knowledge of the seasons form the rich foundation of cultural sustainability over millennia. The traditional cookery of the Wampanoag of the Cape and Islands evolved in harmony with what the land and sea could provide, with the innovative techniques the people employed to yield a rich bounty, and with the cyclic turning of the dramatic New England seasons.
“We began planning for the cold season long before it arrived,” writes Chief Flying Eagle of the Mashpee Wampanoags in the Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook, co-written by Betty Breen of Falmouth. “The pole beans would be tied together with the squash and corn to unite the Three Sisters. Most onions, carrots, and beets were kept in the salt hay and soil in the cellar, but some were left in the ground under salt hay to sweeten with the first frost… Meanwhile, because of the cold, we’d be getting ready to slaughter a pig.”
Winter months, or Quinne Keeswush, Papsaquoho, Paponakeeswush, are also known as the Time of the Long Moon, the season when the darkness of night has seized the sky and the cold of winter has seized the land. In traditional times, dried legumes, berries, vegetables, cured meats, and seasonings would be collected and stored carefully in pits, near or inside the wigwams. Wampanoag Cookery, published by the Boston’s Children’s Museum in 1974, says that people “lined the pits with mats, carefully put in their dried vegetables, meats, and nuts and covered the pit with another mat and heaped earth on top of all of it. When people needed food in the winter, they would get it from these pits, with the exception of a fish caught through the ice or animals taken in traps.”
Recipes survive as a complex interplay of oral and active traditions. Foodways evolve with modernized techniques and ingredients, yet seek to replicate the essence of how a dish tasted the first time, way back, in our unalterable cultural sense-memory. “Winter is the time when the land rests,” says Wampanoag Cookery, and yet the simple abundance of the traditional table should be admired for the inspired dishes that sustained and warmed people as the wind and ice wrapped the darkest days of the year.
Recipe by Helen Attaquin, as it appears in Wampanoag Cookery
Brown two to three pounds of deer meat cut into pieces in bacon fat. Add two large sliced onions and continue browning. When nicely browned, stir in 3 tbsp. flour and place in baking dish. Add 2 tbsp. vinegar, 3 tbsp. ketchup, 1 tbsp. sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the meat with water and bake at 375ºF degrees for two to three hours, until the meat is tender, adding water if necessary to keep the meat covered. When done, thicken the gravy and serve. Serves 4 to 6.
Gay Head Beach Plum Porridge
Recipe by Rachel Jeffers, as it appears in Wampanoag Cookery
First parboil raisins (beach plums) and pour off the water. Then add fresh water and boil until tender. Heat milk and add sugar to taste, also butter and nutmeg. Then add a bit of flour thickening.
Recipe by Earl Mills Sr., Chief Flying Eagle, as it appears in Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Stuff duck cavity with sliced apples and celery tops. Place strips of bacon over the breast and add 1½ cups of water or chicken stock, along with the neck and giblets, to the pan. For a well-done duck, roast 15 minutes per pound, basting every 15 minutes with the fat stock in the pan, along with a mixture of 2 tbsp. of butter and ½ cup red wine.
Goodin’ Puddin’ and Goodin’ Puddin’ Pie
Recipe by Ruth Ellis and Norman and Shirley Stolz, as it appears in Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook
Preheat oven to 325ºF. Grease 8” by 4” by 4” loaf pan with 2 tsp. cooking oil. Add 1 cup cranberries, ¼ cup sugar, and ¼ cup chopped nuts to loaf pan. Beat ½ cup sugar, ¼ cup melted butter, and 1 egg until smooth. Fold in flour and pour mixture over berries. Bake for 45 minutes. You may double the recipe and bake in a deep-dish pie plate, for 6 to 8 servings.