Traditional cooking techniques shown at Full Worm Moon Gathering

  • Elizabeth Perry, left, and Leah Hopkins, right, teach the importance of maple sugar in Native American cooking at the Great Falls Discovery Center, Turners Falls, on Saturday. Recorder Staff/David McLellan

  • Elizabeth Perry, left, and Leah Hopkins, right, talk about Native American cooking as part of the Nolumbeka Project's Full Worm Moon Gathering at the Great Falls Discovery Center, Turners Falls, on Saturday, March 3. Recorder Staff/David McLellan

  • Leah Hopkins, right, demonstrates how to make boiled bread, a traditional Native American recipe, at the Great Falls Discovery Center, Turners Falls, on Saturday. Recorder Staff/David McLellan

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Tea, sugar and bread are provisions commonly bought at the local grocery store, but their ingredients are easily cultivated from the New England wild. With minimal equipment, Native Americans made those items for thousands of years.

On Saturday, Native American cultural educators Leah Hopkins and Elizabeth Perry taught around a hundred people at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls how to do just that.

“Everything today, yes, it’s traditional recipes, but it’s something you can do at home,” said Hopkins, standing in front of a couple of copper pans, some portable burners and bowls of various ingredients.

The talk was a Nolumbeka Project event called Full Worm Moon Gathering, named after a traditional Native American term for the March full moon.

The Nolumbeka Project strives to give a deeper understanding of Native American culture and traditions and Hopkins and Perry, Native Americans themselves who have been cooking traditional foods for many years, did just that.

Most of the recipes they shared included sap or maple syrup, a traditional, seasonal staple of New England’s indigenous peoples.

One note they touched on was just how many different teas can be made from ingredients found in the backyard.

“We would dig sassafras root, which has a beautiful orange color, and it’s very fragrant,” Perry said. “You just take that sap right out of the tree, boil your herbs right in there to make your tea and it will have just a little bit of sweetness, not the heavy sweetness of maple syrup.”

A hammer, a metal tap and a bucket will allow one to cultivate sap from a maple — or even birch — tree. Add it to a pot of boiling water with any variety of herbs for a traditional Native American drink.

“You can do the same with birch. You don’t have to boil it down to a syrup. You can just use that sap right out of the tree,” Perry said.

While technically not “tea” — as in made from tea leaves — many of the recipes Hopkins and Perry shared had medicinal value, too, they said.

“Each one has their own mineral and vitamin composition and different properties as well,” Perry said.

The bark of a slippery elm, boiled and with sap added for flavor, has many uses, Perry said.

“Slippery elm is a really good herb. It’s really very soothing so it will help your throat. If you have a sore throat, it’s great to have or if you have stomach issues or feel you’re getting a cold.”

To maximize the medicinal quality of the drink, Perry said, one should save the bark after boiling rather than throw it out, grind it up and add it to the tea to make a thick drink that is almost more edible than drinkable, Perry said.

Elder blossom tea and marshmallow root tea made in the same fashion will also produce a nutritional drink, Perry said, and the berries from an elder blossom can also be pressed into a flavorful juice to be added to drinks.

Blueberry leaves, common in New England, can be used as the herb in a tea. With sap, the drink might taste deceptively sweet, but blueberry leaves are good for diabetics trying to keep their blood sugar low, Perry said, and there have been studies showing the leaf will lower blood sugar.

While sap is a staple food in many traditional recipes, Native Americans have also boiled it into syrup — and even further into sugar — for generations.

On Saturday, with a less-than-perfect burner plate and a warm temperature, it was difficult for Hopkins and Perry to make maple sugar.

Hopkins explained that Native Americans, always conscious of the weather, would make syrup or sugar on stormy days; the barometric pressure on a stormy day, Hopkins said, is such that the sap or syrup will heat up faster.

At around 220 degrees, maple sap becomes syrup, and around 260 degrees it will become sugar. Traditionally, Native Americans would not filter their syrup, allowing the minerals present to give it a more robust flavor.

And rather than merely a sweet topping or confection, maple syrup and maple sugar are an ingredient for foodstuffs.

“I have a mixture of red cornmeal and yellow cornmeal,” Hopkins said. “I add some maple sugar and some cranberries to it.”

Adding a slight amount of boiling water to the aforementioned mix and stirring will turn the substance doughy, Hopkins said.

Packing the mix into a “neat little cake,” Hopkins said, and then placing it into boiling water will result in boiled bread, flavored with maple sugar.

Maple sugar, syrup and sap, and birch sap as well, are useful for glazes — maple roast duck, for example — drink ingredients and food ingredients. They are easily harvested, easily made and readily available outside.

As Native Americans’ diets were seasonal, sap, syrup and sugar are traditionally common ingredients this time of year, and the sugar would be saved — and packed into seashells — to give as gifts the rest of the year.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.