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Eating the Past: Cherokee bean bread

A stalk of corn inside a dried husk.
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It is that time of year when I want hot, filling comfort foods to help offset the cold and dark of November. Today I want to talk about a food associated now with Oklahoma but which has its origins in earlier indigenous communities in North America and which is often featured at events such as regional powwows or fairs: Cherokee bean bread.

For those who haven't eaten this delicious food, it is probably most easily described as a steamed dumpling or as something akin to a tamale. In terms of its origins, it marries two important native plants in the Americas, beans and corn, and that's about it. Most modern recipes call for steaming or boiling the dumplings after wrapping in corn husks or hickory leaves, but many traditional versions are just hand-shaped and dropped in water.

I first encountered this dish in Oklahoma at an intertribal powwow held in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Growing up in Kansas City, I knew about these events because I had family living in Miami, Oklahoma, and because these events had really become big in this period.

The events featured dancing, crafts and food, including bean bread. I was a youngster, so my memory is a bit clouded about everything that went on at these events, but bean bread usually was served with a stew or soup of some kind. Today the intertribal powwows still take place in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and are worth a visit if you are in the area. The term powwow comes from a Narragansett word and can be used to describe a number of different kind of gatherings historically, but today, most people think of them as celebrations of indigenous culture. Utah State University's powwow event, held each spring, is nearly 50 years old now.

So Cherokee bean bread and how to make it. I recommend using a modern recipe but with good ingredients. High quality masa harina and dry beans form the basics of the dish. My go-to bean supplier, thanks to my friend Phebe, is Rancho Gordo. You can get the beans mailed to your house, and they work with local farmers to market heirloom and hard-to-find bean varieties as well as standards like pinto and black beans. You can choose your favorite bean for this dish, but if you go with Rancho Gordo, consider using their moro bean, an heirloom crop from Hidalgo. You'll need about a cup dried for this dish.

Soak and cook until soft according to the package. You want them to be creamy. Reserve the bean broth for later.

Mix 4 1/4 cups of masa harina with 2 teaspoons salt. Stir in drained beans. Add roughly 2 1/2 to 3 cups of hot bean broth to the mix and stir gently into a sticky dough. Boil a large pot of water on the stove, and while it is coming to heat, form the dough into patties, then wrap in corn husks (tie with kitchen twine). You should have little flat packets.

When water boils, turn it down to simmer, and add the packets. They should simmer about 45 minutes. Remove from water, cool and eat (with stew). You can store in the fridge in the corn husks in a container for a few days.

With the Thanksgiving holiday, these might be great with a leftover turkey soup or a lentil stew for vegetarians. Give them a try!

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.